Firefighting Drones: The Ultimate Guide

Building a Fire Department Drone Program to Save Lives and Money

While drones probably won’t be able to fight fires single-handedly anytime soon, the information they bring to the table is helping fire departments stay safe and save money.

With the latest camera technology, it’s possible to stream high-resolution video from a drone in flight to command staff on scene at a fire. Coordinating with your team on the ground from these eyes in the sky helps you fight the fire more effectively.

Starting a drone program for your department is straightforward: you need the right people with the right training and the right equipment to complete the mission.

Follow our comprehensive guide and you’ll be sure to build an effective, mission-focused drone team in your department and also get your people the quality training they need to be FAA-certified.

Outline

  1. Form your use cases
  2. Get management buy-in and community support
  3. Find the right equipment
  4. Get your people the right training
  5. Implement policies and procedures

Step 1: Forming use cases for firefighting drones

Different fire departments have different needs. An urban firefighting company will naturally use drones much differently than a wildland volunteer fire department. How you use drones not only determines the type of equipment you’ll need for your program, but also the type of paperwork you’ll need to file with the FAA in order to be cleared for launch.

Use Case 1: Scene Monitoring

The biggest advantage a drone offers to any fire department is information. More data at your disposal helps you and your team stay safe and save money by extinguishing fires faster.

Some of the unique benefits for scene monitoring include:

  1. Live stream video feed that can be patched in to command staff
  2. Cut through smoke with thermal imaging cameras
  3. Identify hot spots for better water management
  4. Access to a different perspective on the incident
  5. Chemical detection equipment is available in some drones

Example: Fremont, California fire department

In Fremont, they’re not only cutting down on response time, but also gathering information about incidents faster.

Use Case 2: Search and Rescue

Doing daytime flights doesn’t take much paperwork with the FAA. However, if you will need to use drones for search and rescue operations, there’s a good chance you’ll sometimes operate at night, which, at the moment, takes an additional level of certification with the FAA.

Some other search and rescue operation considerations are:

  1. Drones can cover more ground than a typical search party.
  2. Many drones can be programmed to grid search a specific area.
  3. If searching at night, you may need a drone equipped with lights (so a person can see the drone) as well as a thermal camera (so that the drone can see the person)
  4. You may want a drone that’s capable of carrying a light payload (like a phone or communication device)
  5. You may need a drone capable of long-range and a long battery life. It’s best to have multiple replacement batteries on-hand to reduce downtime.

Example: Garrett Bryl, Joshua Fire Department Texas

Garrett Bryl, a volunteer drone pilot at the Joshua Fire Department, used his drone to aid in search-and rescue efforts after the worst flooding in years hit the Fort Worth area. Not only was he able to locate a truck in 45 seconds that conventional search and rescue hadn’t been able to find in an hour, but he also assisted with a home rescue.

Use Case 3: Disaster Response

Whether it’s a tornado or a hurricane, there’s a lot of cleanup to do after a disaster. Drones can assist in the information-gathering process so that fire departments can work quickly and effectively to get their communities back into good shape.

Some specific ideas for disaster response are:

  1. Locate stranded civilians so that response teams can evacuate them.
  2. Observation flights to check for downed trees and power lines, blocked roads and other hazards.
  3. Drones capable of carrying a payload can drop medicine or other critical supplies.

Example: Hurricane Matthew Response

After Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, flood waters were too high to drive out and inspect damage. Verizon sent out a drone in North Carolina to check cell towers that they were unable to reach. Read more here.

Use Case 4: Wildland Firefighting

Wildland firefighters and Forest Service smokejumpers easily have the most reason to be resentful of drones; in the past few years, civilian drones have been reportedly zipping through wildfire scenes like horseflies. It’s gotten so bad that firefighting crews have had to postpone water drops for fear of hitting a drone in the process. That’s one bug you don’t want to wind up on your windshield.

Regardless, drones have a lot to offer wildland crews:

  1. Effective monitoring is especially important to the typically unpredictable and difficult to contain wildfires.
  2. A drone with an onboard high-quality thermal imaging camera can help cut through the haze of the fire, and help monitor the firefighters’ position on the ground.
  3. Drones can help identify civilians for evacuation, or the best evacuation route.
  4. A live video feed from a drone makes coordination and communication much easier for command and support staff who aren’t able to be on the scene.

Example: Spokane, Washington Fire Department

Thermal cameras are great for cutting the dense smoke you’d normally get from a wildland fire. See a side-by-side video of the thermal camera and a normal camera here:

Use Case 5: Pre-Planning

Drones are also useful in the pre-planning stage of fire prevention. With their high-quality photo and video cameras, drones can quickly capture images of the exterior of a structure from all angles, which helps your team identify the best incident response plan before there’s even an incident to worry about.

Step 2: Get department buy-in and community support

You’ll need support from both inside and outside your department in order to be successful in launching a drone program for your fire department.

Pilots

First off, you’ll need the people to man the drones. Some resourceful departments have turned to volunteer pilots in the community to form the basis of their pilot corps: this way, you get people who are already experienced and possibly certified, but what’s more, it serves as a good way to reach out to the community and keep your own administrative costs down.

However, aviation personnel or other staff members who are interested in learning to pilot drones are another great resource to fill your pilot ranks.

Management

Next, you’ll need buy-in from administrators in your department. There are a few key points to consider as part of your presentation:

  1. What are the use cases? Answer the question: “why does our department need a drone program?”
  2. How will the department will both staff and fund the program?
  3. How will we approach the community?

Community

It’s good to consider how the community may react to a new municipal drone program. It will probably be worth your time to get feedback early from the public. They’ll probably want to know things like:

  1. How will drones help the community?
  2. Is a drone program worth the money?
  3. Will drones be used for any kind of surveillance?

This last question is a doozy. One of the biggest roadblocks with drones entering into day-to-day life is the fear of drone surveillance. Fortunately, many states and towns already have laws on the books governing how drones can be used. Refer to those laws as a way to reassure your citizens that the intent here is to help, not to keep tabs on them.

Fortunately, there’s a software service that can help put all these concerns to bed. DroneSense is a flight management solution that was built specifically for public safety. Their AirBase platform records flight telemetry data and camera locations to help you be transparent about where drones were flying and what they were looking at.

Step 3: Recommended Equipment

Here are some general tips:

  1. Practice makes perfect: it doesn’t matter how much you spend on your equipment if you’re not prepared to use it properly. As you build your program, outline how often you will conduct training operations to make sure your pilots maintain a state of readiness.
  2. Bring enough power: you don’t want to run out of water during the middle of a direct attack, and you don’t want your drone to go dead from lack of juice either. Have at least 3 backup batteries charged and ready to swap in.
  3. Maintain your signal: broadcasting a video feed will be more difficult in remote locations. Make sure that your supporting technology will ensure that your video feed remains stable.

Industry leader DJI manufacturers three drones that are well-suited for different firefighting applications.

Matrice 210: Rugged, Reliable, All-Purpose

The Matrice 210 is an enterprise-level drone that is capable of carrying three onboard cameras. Our recommended configuration is to pair the Zenmuse Z30 with the Zenmuse XT2 thermal camera. The Z30 boasts an impressive 30x digital zoom that can focus in on details from a long way off.

With the upgraded TB55 batteries, this payload will give you about 24 minutes worth of flight time on a max range of 7 kilometers.

Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual: Lower-quality camera but better flight time

The Matrice’s much smaller cousin, the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual carries two permanent onboard cameras, the M2ED Thermal and Visual Cameras. It’s a more cost-effective option for departments who want a reliable thermal camera.

While the zoom is not as powerful as the Zenmuse Z30, the Mavic 2 can stay in the sky for an impressive 31 minutes, and transmit data from 8 kilometers away.

Mavic Air: Inexpensive Option for New Programs

If you don’t need a thermal camera for your use case, the Mavic Air may be a good choice for you. It can live stream HD video from up to 4 kilometers away from the base station, and is able to stay in the air for up to 21 minutes on a full battery charge.

Step 4: Get your people trained and certified

Given the function of a drone and its operation in the national airspace, the FAA has put specific requirements in place to keep users and the public safe. The Remote Pilot Certificate is the best way for public safety agencies to certify their pilots. Prospective pilots are tested on the regulations outlined in Part 107 of the FAA’s rules for small unmanned aircraft.

The key components of the Part 107 Rules are:

  1. The drone must remain within visual line of sight at all times. That means you can’t use binoculars or other devices to help you keep the drone in sight either.
  2. You can only fly during daylight.
  3. The max altitude is 400 feet.
  4. Prior authorization is required before flying in most controlled airspace near airports.

Flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight

One of the biggest current drawbacks with the regulatory environment around drones is that you can’t fly them beyond visual line of sight, which would be a great benefit to firefighters. It’s far easier to launch a drone right from the station and fly it to the scene than it is to cart the drone over to the scene yourself.

Fortunately, the law isn’t set in stone. As the drone industry continues to mature, the laws evolve to reflect new capabilities. For instance, many drones now boast sophisticated obstacle-avoidance sensors and software that allow them to follow a “return home” command that brings them back to base on autopilot. The FAA is expecting to continue reshaping the laws after they’ve had enough time to study the data.

That said, there is one way to fly beyond visual line of sight now, via a Part 107 Waiver. Just so you know though, the FAA is not giving these out to just anybody. In order to have your waiver successfully granted, you’ll need to provide in-depth details to the FAA about what it is you want to do, and why you feel you need a waiver in order to do it.

A great use case for a waiver would be wildland firefighters, where a fire is often in a remote area that could take hours to reach by road. It’s important to start getting data on the wildfire as quickly as possible. Plus, the drones probably wouldn’t be flying over settled areas, so it’s more likely that the FAA might grant the waiver.

Step 5: Implement protocols and procedures

It’s important to have clear communication within your department about how the drones will be used. While the FAA has provided some regulations in Part 107, that’s just a starting point. In developing your own protocols and procedures, you’ll need to consider questions like:

  1. When should we use a drone, and when should we not use a drone?
  2. Who can authorize the use of a drone?
  3. What should our pre-flight check process look like?
  4. How will pilots be trained and supervised?
  5. What will the punishment be if a pilot breaks one of the rules?

We’ve worked with and interviewed several fire departments from across the country. If you need help reviewing your own protocols and procedures, get in touch with us below and we’d be happy to help.


Drones represent a new frontier for many industries. While you may not need a drone for every problem you and your team face (at least, until they invent a drone capable of carrying a housecat), they are a useful tool that expands your ability to measure and understand a fire. The additional perspective that comes from this extra data will help keep everyone safe, firefighters and citizens alike.

David Young

David Young

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