Drones and firefighting operations

In the aftermath of the fire that gutted part of the library at the University of Cape Town last May, drones flew in to assess the damage.

The data captured would be valuable to the university’s insurers and architects to understand the scale and costs needed to reinstate the library back to its full glory.

The overall goal, though, is for the drones to be useful before the fire causes any damage to infrastructure or to the environment – and that is the reason why Chinese drone maker EHang developed a drone that actually fights fire.

Launched in July 2020, the EH216F passed all the quality tests carried on its by Chinese fire-fighting authorities, which meant that its features; which include autopilot, quick response and cluster management; designed to address pain points in urban high-rise firefighting and become a valuable complement to the existing firefighting system; are available for use by fire fighters when the need arises.

The drone is also fitted with six fire extinguishing bombs, a laser pointer and a powerful camera capable of zooming into objects without the picture going grainy. The fire bombs are shot at a fire, where they will explode into firefighting foam upon landing.

There is also a ten-metre-long high-pressure nozzle, which can be aimed at a fire to eject water that can douse the flames; all this without mentioning the great advantage the drone itself has – that it can actually fly to dizzy heights and fight fires at altitudes that ladders cannot attain without putting fire fighters in considerable danger.

There are many other things that Firefighting drones can do, as they rise as one of the essential tools for preventing deadly inferno occurrences, especially in and around urban centres.

In the United States, more than 900 state and local agencies related to emergency services have added drone technology to the firefighting inventory, for use in response and recovery operations.

Below is a list of some of the instances where drones can be used to ensure that fires do not do much damage.

Situational awareness

Drones are effective intelligence generators that have the capability to live stream real-time aerial view to the command centre so that the firefighters know exactly what is happening rather than relying on second-hand information. This way, drones provide situational awareness, guide emergency response, and perform dangerous duties while ensuring the health and safety of firefighters.

In dealing with a structure fire, drones can provide relevant information about the nature of fire, its entry and exit points, or where it could spread. Thus, drones can act as an ideal aerial firefighting tool to extinguish fires in high-rise buildings, which can be challenging to put out through fire nozzles or rescue ladders. Gathering this kind of information might not have been possible to conclude otherwise.

Thermal assessment

Equipped with thermal cameras, drones can see in the low-light conditions and detect irregularities on various infrastructure, inspect insulation on building and even identify the major hotspot in burning buildings. This feature of drones can be highly beneficial to facilitate operations during night-time or under foggy conditions, or when the smoke clouds block the vision of firefighters.

Besides, a thermal camera mounted on the drone allows operators to observe and investigate extensive areas from a safe distance in large fire scenarios. The thermal sensors make detecting and rescuing people much more reliable due to the temperature differences between the people and the surroundings. Some modern drones are equipped with heterogeneous sensors such as optical and hyperspectral cameras to perform tasks such as scoping the region of event, heat source detection, victim localization, etc.

Conduct investigations

Using a drone to capture aerial footage while the fire is burning provides information about the current fire scenario and helps to collect first-hand information about how the fire erupted in the first place. This information retrieved via photos and videos can be archived and used for conducting an investigation.

Firefighters use drones after extinguishing the fire to survey the scene, collect relevant information, and turn it into 3D maps, which serve as a record of the post-fire scene. Additionally, the aerial video footage and images help create better training material to improve the future approach for fire management or better decision-making processes. Evacuation routes can also be planned as well as preventive measures can be identified to control fire as fast as possible.

Better alternatives to manned aircrafts

For thermal and visual mapping, drones are considered better than manned aircraft as they gather data from vantage points which helicopters or planes simply cannot. Drones can fly at a lower level than helicopters, which can help to provide a more nuanced picture of the situation. Besides, it can navigate in dangerous spaces where manned aircraft cannot reach. Sometimes, drones can be used in tandem with manned aircraft to cover rugged terrains.

Performing routine investigations

Industrial fire brigades can leverage drone technology to perform routine tank inspections, which can be manually laborious and expensive. Besides, conventional routine investigation techniques might take more time and lead to safety concerns for those involved. Drones have revolutionised providing needed information about tank conditions, detecting problems, enhancing safety, and shortening downtime.

Drones are rapidly becoming a standard tool for firefighting, delivering medical supplies, and surveillance during emergencies. More and more companies are venturing into drone development technologies and autonomous software development to fulfil the growing need to assist in combating high-rise building accidents and wildfires.

Edge computing, artificial intelligence, and big data analytics power up drone technology and allow drones to make autonomous flights. Besides, these advanced technologies also enable organizations to deploy and control drone flight with voice commands and real-time data transfer via LTE. Certain technologies would allow drones to be programmed to alert fire or police officials in situations of emergencies, which could prove beneficial for industries operating in chemicals or hazardous operations.


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