UAS in firefighting: how unmanned systems can help to keep the environment safe
Firefighting services worldwide are constantly innovating, and the recent trend toward using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is no exception. Climate change has been a key factor in increasing the risk and extent of wildfires. Climate change is creating ever warmer, drier conditions, increasing the risk of drought, and a longer season when fire is a real risk in many parts of the world.
UAVs, also known as 'Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or 'drones,' is rapidly becoming a standard tool for use at the scene of a fire; they are a useful addition to the equipment, and many firefighters have come to rely on the information they provide during and after a major fire incident.
UAVs can fly long ranges and equip with high-definition cameras, thermal imaging sensors, and other equipment; they can provide a real-time view of fires on the ground and how they spread. As costs decrease and technology improves, UAV adoption in fire safety is quickly becoming a standard firefighting tool. Especially taking into consideration their ease of deployment.
Uses of unmanned air vehicles in firefighting
The main uses of UAVs in firefighting today are:
- Fire scene monitoring and assessment
- Search And Rescue (SAR)
- Post-fire analysis and scene documentation
The integration of lightweight and increasingly capable radiometric thermal sensors has revolutionized the amount of information available to a fire scene commander - and information is key when lives are at stake.
Whether planning the ingress route to access a fire in a building or structure or searching for people inside, thermal imagery can “see” through the smoke to locate individuals and hot spots while keeping firefighters safe. When using manned platforms during such operations, highly skilled pilots are required due to the reduced visibility when flying into fire smoke. This risk may be mitigated using uncrewed remotely piloted or automatically commanded platforms, thereby reducing stress and operator fatigue.
UAVs can be highly efficient in terms of energy requirements, which becomes essential when fighting big fires requiring long operations. This makes them a relatively eco-friendly technology with a low carbon footprint (see this article).
Case STUDY. Spanish UME
The Spanish Emergency Military Unit (UME) is a dedicated paramilitary force that was established for missions where intervention is required to preserve the safety of Spanish citizens in cases of natural disaster, high risk, or other special public needs.
Despite its wide remit, the UME mainly focuses on supporting firefighters to tackle wildfire emergencies. The UME has a strength of over 4,000 and uses a wide variety of vehicles, tools, and equipment, including UAVs. Among these UAVs is the Spanish A-800 helicopter UAV, which UAV Navigation’s flight controller controls. The system has several advanced features, but its main contribution in this role is to provide timely information to commanders on the ground about the development of a wildfire while at the same time reducing the risk to people on the ground.
UAS firefighting applications
UAVs have been used for several years to help combat fires.
Working in conjunction with firefighters and other public safety professionals, aircraft manufacturers are introducing products with quick start-up functions, high reliability, state-of-the-art thermal sensors, longer flight durations, and - importantly - waterproofing for all-weather and all-condition operation.
The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), data analysis, and drone technology is giving fire departments a new suite of tools to combat fires that are growing in size, frequency, and intensity. UAVs are robust tools that can be operated regardless of weather conditions. These tools are also proving to be very useful to firefighters in the urban environment.
Uncrewed systems provide situational awareness
A key function of UAS in the firefighting context is to provide situational awareness to commanders during inherently chaotic situations. These aircraft are useful tools for capturing thermal images of the landscape below in real-time; the heat signature can assist commanders in deciding where firefighters should establish fire containment lines, dug either by bulldozer or by hand.
To help firefighting agencies gain situational awareness, UAVs can help protect personnel and enable fast mapping for incident response and post-incident recovery. Interestingly, they can also be used to remotely ignite controlled burns to stop fires from spreading.
How UAVs are beneficial for firefighters
Having eyes above the scene and being able to fly the drone to where the hotspots are allowed crews to fight the fire more efficiently. With greater information from the air, incident command can better direct the crew members on the scene to put out the fire. The thermal camera provides the essential ability for firefighters to see through the smoke to monitor hotspots. UAS are eyes in the sky for firefighters. They can be an essential firefighting tool for people in the fire services, especially in and around urban centers, where a deadly inferno might occur in high-rise buildings.
UAV and Drones flight control systems
UAVs require flight control software and hardware elements that will allow the aircraft to be controlled remotely, either directly by a pilot or autonomously by an onboard computer. UAV flight dynamics are highly variable and non-linear, so maintaining attitude and stability may require continuous computation and readjustment of the aircraft’s flight control systems.
UAV Navigation flight control solutions contain some beneficial capacities to fight fires. Among the most important are:
UAV Navigation autopilots may be fully integrated with cameras and provide advanced capabilities. The incorporation of geo-pointing functionalities allows the UAS to automatically follow the target coordinates provided by a camera either automatically (object tracking) or via manual input. This would allow getting a real-time image of a fire source using an automatic loiter of the aircraft over it.
Flight Plan generator for tracking purposes
The operator can easily configure a fight plan to let the UAV cover a designated area most efficiently. This functionality is strategic for Search & Rescue missions and during post-fire analysis.
Automatic cargo drop
The user can configure automatic actions on waypoints while planning the mission. The firefighters could schedule automatic events such as switch activations or automatic events.
Flight 3D Visualization
3d vision of the flight to know the orography in real-time. As we mentioned before, the low visibility when flying through the smoke may lead to risky situations and put the mission in danger. UAV Navigation flight control system allows the integration of a 3D visualization tool that helps operators to increase situational awareness and know real-time orography of the terrain.
High Speed – Emergency
Firefighting requires quick actions, so a Flight Control Solution easy to deploy high-speed applications is mandatory. Professional flight controllers such as UAV Navigation include “multiple gains settings” that allow automatic interpolation of gains depending on airspeed and help UAS platforms to be present on the fire location very fast. This would reduce the time to start acting over the fire and prevent its spreading.
All these features make any UAV/UAS a very useful tool to extinguish a fire in the shortest possible time.
Thanks to these and other capabilities in its flight control solutions, UAV Navigation contributes to the evolution of the UAS industry and its applications. Our commitment to the environment focuses not only on our products but also on the way they are produced. We are proud to provide easy-to-deploy tools to society that help sustainably respond to their most basic needs.