Firefighting Drones Aim to Fly Higher, Help Save Lives

Hincley Wood, South East England, UK - September 29, 2017. A Firefigther from a UK Fire and Rescue Service is using a drone during a training scenario. Credit: iStock

July 25, 2018      

Firefighters generally have three goals – protect and save lives, extinguish fires, and protect/save physical properties. Until recently, firefighting tools were relatively low-tech – trucks, ladders, and hoses. But all that’s changing with firefighting drones.

With increased urbanization, traffic, taller commercial and residential buildings, and new dangerous substances being used in construction, firefighters are looking at advances in aerial drone technologies to assist them in achieving their goals. Technologies such as electronic and gas sensors, heat-resistant materials, improved cameras, autonomous and swarm operations, and improved range and air time are being added to commercial drones to aid firefighters.

Current drone usage

Currently, approximately 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency service agencies in the U.S. have acquired drones, according to a May 2018 report by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Out of those, 186 agencies belong to fire or EMS agencies. Percentages are unknown in Europe, but they are expected to rise significantly in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

For example, a Goldman Sachs study estimates an $881 million market for firefighting use of drones between now and 2020, with exponential annual growth.

Equipment modifications for firefighting drones

Most drones used for firefighting operations are equipped with add-ons, including:

  • Thermal cameras to identify fire sources and hot spots;
  • Infrared cameras that detect humans and animals;
  • Extinguishing agent takes, including powder, foam, water, or specialized liquids;
  • Mist distributors that spray a cooling mist to let drones and firefighters get closer to a fire;
  • High-definition cameras that can help identify products and codes on packaging to determine potentially dangerous and flammable goods.

Types of drones for firefighting

Currently eight types of drones are considered useful for firefighting:

Ascending 984 feet in six minutes

Latvian company Aerones has developed a firefighter drone prototype that can climb 984 feet (300 meters) in six minutes, which not only exceeds the reach of normal ladders (typically no longer than 100 feet (29 meters), but also the speed of ascent a human firefighter reaches.

The Aerones drone has the following specifications:

  • 20 minutes of air time, which can be extended through a tethered power supply or in-air recharging;
  • Can achieve close proximity to a fire, about 98 feet (30 meters);
  • Spray a “special chemical mix” to maximize spray weight and pressure;
  • Optional use of foam.

The company is also developing two other drones – a “superfast drone” with 28 propellers, a maximum load of 441 lbs (200 kgs), and maximum height of 984 feet (300 meters); and a “fast drone” with 36 propellers, a maximum load of 661 lbs. (300 kgs), and maximum height of 1,640 feet (500 meters).

Keeping them in the sky

Like regular drones, battery capacity is still the main limiting factor with firefighting drones. With increased air time and extinguisher agent payload more crucial, companies are looking at developing hybrid engines and in-air recharging methods.

A hybrid drone uses a small internal combustion engine to run a generator that charges the battery. Drones with these engines would likely be the driver behind larger drones with larger payload capabilities.

Seeing through smoke

In Sweden, the University of Örebro, in conjunction with the German city of Dortmund’s fire brigade, developed a rescue robot called SmokeBot that can see through heavy smoke to detect humans and toxic fumes. The SmokeBot also includes stereo infrared heat cameras, a 3D radar camera, a lidar unit, a laser scanner, and gas sensors.

SmokeBot University of Orebro

Achim Lilienthal and SmokeBot. Credit: University of Örebro

At present, SmokeBot operates on the ground, but a drone version seems possible. This is true for many other ground-based firefighting robots, which operate in places too dangerous or unreachable for humans. The detection and extinguishing methods they already use are being converted for drone use, provided drones can handle the extra weight.

Other applications

As drones and other robotic technologies advance, we would expect to see further applications being used by firefighters, including:

  • Closer extinguishing with more heat-resistant materials;
  • Better detection of humans, animals, and toxic substances;
  • Attachments that can disperse smoke in crucial areas;
  • Guiding panicked humans to safety through lights and sound;
  • Smart robots or drones on patrol that can prevent fires from breaking out, or extinguish smaller fires before they spread.

Swarm firefighters in the future?

For larger fires, it’s possible that multiple drones would need to operate together, share data, respond collectively to stimuli, avoid obstacles and other dangers, and make instant decisions.

Last week, a group of European researchers published research in the Science Robotics journal that demonstrated that large flocks of autonomous drones could seamlessly navigate in confined spaces. The research, highlighted here, demonstrated that aerial outdoor systems could exhibit flocking behaviors, similar to birds, that avoid collisions with other drones and objects without needing a central control.

While the researchers didn’t state this, one such application of this technology would include firefighting drones, among other use cases.