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Rise of the fire drones

First responders expand role of robots

The firefighters of Menlo Park, California, pride themselves on forward thinking. Having embraced drones (with some help from friends, including a few household names), they are working to spread the word and help others do good things with robots.

Capt. Anthony Eggimann is part of a team of professional firefighters who have trained to pilot drones for the Menlo Park Fire District. Photo courtesy of Capt. Eggimann.

If future 911 calls in Menlo Park are answered first by an autonomous flying robot that assesses the situation and beams data and images to firefighters stuck on gridlocked streets long before they reach the scene, and perhaps deploys a medical kit or other useful item, there’s a very good chance that such a drone will be a local product.

More than drones could be born of the collaboration forged in February in this town of a few more than 30,000 residents. There are procedures to be developed, lessons to be learned about how to make the most of flying robots, from large models that deliver payloads to smaller drones that might work directly alongside future firefighters, tiny machines able to venture into burning buildings and augment situational awareness with all kinds of critical data, scanning through the blinding smoke for people in need of rescue, or exits, or hoses—all pieces of information which can be matters of life and death.

While Texas is home to many of the firefighters most experienced in the use of drones for emergency response, and the Austin Fire Department’s Robotics Emergency Deployment team was the first of several to secure an FAA Certificate of Authorization to operate drones for emergency services, and currently operates both aerial and aquatic rescue robots, Menlo Park has a few advantages in geography and a neighborhood rich in all of the resources of Silicon Valley.


The Menlo Park Fire District headquarters. Photo courtesy of Menlo Park Fire District.

The fire district that protects Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton, and a sizeable chunk of San Francisco Bay is a stone’s throw from the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. Menlo Park Fire District Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who is among the nation’s leaders and experts in urban search and rescue, previously worked with Parimal Kopardekar, who currently leads the NASA UAS Traffic Management program—a joint effort by NASA and the FAA and other collaborators to design and test a system to facilitate safe integration of unmanned aircraft—as principal investigator.

Capt. Chris Dennebaum, the fire district UAS coordinator, said Kopardekar connected the department with NASA experts who helped the fire district with its FAA authorization application and related matters. DJI Director of Education Romeo Durscher helped train Menlo Park firefighters to fly their DJI drones. The Chinese firm that dominates the consumer drone market worldwide manufactured all of the drones Menlo Park has flown to date, including a Mavic that survived a downpour to deliver valuable, real-time information about the status of a damaged bridge spanning a flooded creek in February.

“What we’ve done is basically associate ourselves with a lot of smart people,” Dennebaum said in a telephone interview. He is not kidding: The fire district has trained its firefighters to fly drones using the facilities of the Stanford Linear Accelerator, known as the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, which has since 1962 hosted experiments that led to Nobel prizes for six scientists.

Menlo Park is also the home of Facebook, the social media giant that employs more than 6,000 people at the global headquarters that the firefighters of Menlo Park protect. Not coincidentally, Facebook donated $300,000 to the fire district in 2015, which helped the department acquire a lot of cutting-edge technology, including thermal cameras and drones.

The drones already in hand are only the beginning.

The fire district in March signed a formal agreement with the Menlo Park firm Matternet, a world leader in the development of autonomous drones that fly beyond line of sight.  Matternet has developed these capabilities overseas, including Switzerland, where Matternet drones flew tests to determine the feasibility of mail delivery by drones for Swiss Post in 2015; Matternet announced in September a partnership with Mercedes-Benz to develop a delivery van with an integrated drone that can deliver packages from the van, the much-sought-after last-mile solution that package companies around the world are seeking.

The fire district’s partnership with Matternet could hasten the “Rise of the Machines,” a movie title borrowed by fire district staff as the title of a drone operations strategic plan that was presented in July to the fire district board. Finalization of the Matternet agreement means the company will shoulder the cost of developing new drones in collaboration with the firefighters who know best what they need, and the company will have the commercial rights. The signing of the agreement was announced March 13, and could some day spell serious competition for DJI in the emergency services market.

It also could put the fire district in a prominent position in the national scene, a potential that has not escaped the attention of local officials.

“I want this agency to be the lead agency in the United States in the terms of applying new technology,” fire district board President Peter Carpenter said at a February meeting covered by The Mercury News. “We could be the fire agency that looked at UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and gave them a seal of approval. What’s exciting about that is whoever’s first in that business generally dominates. Second and third entries in certifications don’t do generally well.”

While Menlo Park was not the first community to deploy drones for rescue and first response, there remains relatively little in the way of guidance for firefighters around the country who might want to develop a drone capability. The early adopters are left to figure out much of it as they go, though they are sharing information and lessons learned with others in the fire service. Dennebaum said the department reached out to several other agencies with experience using drones, and assembled the local program based on picking elements that fit.

“We basically found people who have vetted programs and borrowed pieces of that,” Dennebaum said. He said the Palo Alto tower staff and other FAA officials have been very helpful, and remain engaged; a local drone advisory committee is being formed to include agencies, manufacturers, operators (both manned and unmanned, such as local air ambulance providers and the U.S. Coast Guard), and other stakeholders.

"I feel like more than being a leader, we’re somewhat in the middle of the hub, the center of a wheel that a lot of stuff is poking out from," Dennebaum said. "We’re in this great area where we’re able to take on this project, to this level, and really push the bounds of the technology and see where we change it to."

The department has invited every California fire department, and each of the 28 federal urban search-and-rescue task forces across the country (of which Menlo Park is one), to a drone symposium June 2 at the Stanford laboratory, which has an auditorium that seats 350. The invitation, issued March 17, includes a request for subject matter experts, and notes that assistance with coffee and lunch for up to 350 would also be welcome. A nonprofit organization has been established to accept tax-deductible donations for the coffee fund, and any extra will be used to fund education programs being crafted for the public on responsible drone flying.

The drone-flying firefighters of Menlo Park are still figuring out how, exactly, to make the best use of a drone, a process informed by detailed after-action reports and debriefing.  

Some applications are obvious: An aerial view of a burning building can contain a great deal of information; make that a thermal image, or better yet a combination of both, and the utility amplifies.

Yet it takes a trained eye to make use of the pretty pictures, Dennebaum said, and the last thing he wants is to have the incident commander get fixated on an overhead camera view at the expense of the even bigger picture of the overall situation. Dennebaum said the decision to train firefighters to be pilots rather than the other way around was an important one, carefully considered, and not particularly easy. When fighting a structure fire, manpower is at a premium, and losing a firefighter to the drone pilot’s role represents a sacrifice in capability to create another capability.

While many Part 107 pilots, or hobbyists, even, might be tempted to offer a helping hand, those without fire service training might not understand the significance of what they see from above. Changing conditions are most important, but not all are important to report to incident command. Different smoke colors, and what they mean, and scores of other subtleties can contain critical information that needs to be passed up the chain of command, or irrelevant data that should be filtered out. The drone crew needs to know the difference to be an effective asset.

Dennebaum is exploring whether and how civilian drone pilots can be efficiently trained, perhaps building on the citizen emergency response team model. One thing is certain, those without training and a prior relationship with the fire department in question can do nothing on the day of a fire, or other emergency, that will help. A fire officer managing a response will never be receptive to an offer of assistance from a stranger with a drone in hand.

Other missions, like search and rescue, are far less dependent on specialized knowledge and expertise. The department used its drone to film gridlock and create a public service announcement vividly illustrating the effect of gridlock on first responders. Thermal cameras (Menlo Park has purchased a Zenmuse XT thermal imaging camera, a DJI gimbal with a camera designed by FLIR Systems) may be the most obvious and immediately attainable use case for rescue drones, but there are many others that may result now that a drone manufacturer (Matternet) has formally partnered with professional firefighters.

The Menlo Park Fire District water rescue team poses for a 'dronie.' Many members of the team are also the department's drone pilots.

Dennebaum can imagine drones one day flying autonomously alongside firefighters indoors, into an environment of high heat and zero-zero visibility. It was just such an environment, a fire inside a supermarket, that claimed the life of Bret Richmond Tarver, a Phoenix firefighter who became separated from his fellow firefighters, got lost, and ran out of air.

Firefighters, like pilots, study their losses, and think of ways to prevent them. A drone, Dennebaum said, one able to navigate an environment of solid smoke and use advanced sensors to locate people, and exits, and fire hoses, a drone like that might make a life-and-death difference.

“That’s more pie in the sky future,” Dennebaum said, “something that we’re considering.”

In the more immediate future, Dennebaum said the Matternet partnership will speed development of a customized and dedicated drone response vehicle, most likely a van chassis with charging stations, computers, and other equipment to support multiple drones in the field.

Phase three of the district’s drone plan will see the arrival of payload-toting drones, able to deliver medical supplies, or other urgent necessities, such as a rope. A drone, Dennebaum said, is “the world’s best line gun, essentially.”

Much of the work of firefighting is done well in advance, and there are detailed plans in place for how the department would respond if a fire did break out at Facebook, or any of the other major structures in the district. Dennebaum said drones used for construction and architecture applications could be easily adapted to build 3-D models for firefighters that could be accessed from a tablet by a firefighter en route to the scene.

“We’re looking at doing that with our prefire planning,” Dennebaum said.

The Menlo Park Fire District, just west of Palo Alto Airport, operates drones under a certificate of authorization and coordinates flights with the Palo Alto tower.
Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Drone, Technology

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