[Headline: Firefighting exercise seen from above]
At the Roswell Flight Test Crew, one of our priorities is to demonstrate beneficial applications of First-Person View (FPV) multirotors, especially for the public safety community, so when our local fire department asked if we’d be willing to do a demonstration for them, we leapt at the chance.
We’ve had the opportunity to fly with firefighters before, but this was a special opportunity because the agency in question—Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue—serves the area where we live. If I manage to set my house on fire while trying to charge a LiPo battery, these are the people who are going to show up and put it out.
There was one more factor that set this experience apart from most of our previous public safety demonstrations. This structural firefighting exercise was going to involve an actual residential structure as opposed to a hardened, reinforced concrete “burn room” specifically built to withstand repeated conflagrations.
The target property was a large, two-story house standing on a spacious lot in a suburban neighborhood. It had been acquired by Habitat for Humanity, which has plans to build 16 single-family homes on the site, but demolishing the existing structure was a major impediment to moving forward with the project.
It turns out that volunteers equipped with crowbars and sledgehammers are no match for a ripping fire when it comes to taking down a building, so the people from Habitat for Humanity were happy to let the firefighters come out and practice their craft.
A View From Above
We set up our ground station in one corner of the lot, near the incident commander’s vehicle. The firefighters provided a large-screen television that we connected to our video receiver so that the incident commander (known as the “IC” on the fire ground) and others could watch the live feed from our aircraft without having to put on a set of goggles.
When firefighters get the opportunity to train with live fire in a real structure, they don’t throw a couple of burning road flares through the front door then sit back and wait for the fun to begin. Instead, individual rooms are loaded with fuel (wooden shipping pallets and hay) then torched one at a time so that the trainees can watch how the fire behaves before “knocking it down” or partially extinguishing it so another group gets a chance to watch it build back up again. Eventually it’s put out for good and the training moves on to the next room.
It’s a carefully choreographed series of maneuvers that resembles the operations at a real fire. On the day of this exercise, four groups of new recruits took turns filling different roles. The attack team observed the fire and knocked it down and the backup team stood by to assist the attack team.
The rapid-intervention team (RIT) is specifically prepared to rescue firefighters who become trapped or cut off within the burning building. A team is also assigned to “rehab,” where firefighters recuperate and undergo a quick medical checkup before returning to the line.
During this initial phase of the exercise, we sent our FPV hexacopter—the RQCX-3 Raven—to hover above the building, relying primarily on our forward-looking infrared (FLIR) thermal-imaging camera to observe while the boarded-up windows of each room turned white as the fire inside took hold. Using an onboard camera switch, we occasionally changed over to our GoPro, to watch the scene unfold using visible light.
In the midst of these training evolutions, Chris Hamilton, the fire department member who had originally reached out to us about performing this demonstration, stopped by and told us that the IC had indeed been watching from inside his truck, and requested that we provide more visible light imagery.
“He knows that the fire is hot,” Chris explained. “What your drone is giving him is the opportunity to see where all of his people are, and that’s what is most important in this case, because he’s responsible for keeping them safe.”
Burnin’ Down the House
Pleased at the thought that our efforts might be providing more than a theoretical benefit to the brave men and women who were running into a burning building a few dozen yards from our perch, we sent Raven out on sortie after sortie. Back on the ground, we used a pair of Hyperion EOS 0720i Super Duo Dual battery chargers to keep our reserve of LiPo batteries at peak capacity.
As the exercise progressed, we would occasionally see tongues of flame poke through the roof shingles or escape around the edges of one of the windows. The FLIR revealed that heat was building up inside the structure, and we anticipated that what the firefighters refer to as the “terminal burn” would soon commence.
Between flights, Chris stopped by our ground station again, this time carrying a bright-yellow Motorola radio, like the one he carried inside a pocket on the front of his vest.
“The IC wanted me to give you this,” he said. “Listen for the call sign ‘Drone Group.’ He’s going to request you provide him with specific views around different sides of the building.”
This was a moment we had been waiting to experience for approximately three years—integrating our sUAS directly into the command and control structure of a local fire department. I took the radio from Chris and tucked it into a pouch on the front of my vest.
He explained how firefighters quickly identify the sides of a building during an emergency response. The side where the first unit arrives is designated Alpha and the other three sides are referred to as Bravo, Charlie, and Delta, moving clockwise around the structure from an overhead vantage point.
Imbued with an even more heady sense of the potential and the responsibility of our situation, we waited to hear our call sign from the radio. We didn’t have long to wait.
“IC to Drone Group,” crackled the Motorola.
Suddenly flustered, I tried to remember the advice we’d been given while earning our ham radio licenses. Speak past the face of the handset, talk slowly, and don’t shout.
“Go for Drone Group,” I replied, hoping that I had actually found the transmit button.
“Can you give me a look at the Charlie side of the building?” the IC responded.
“Understood, Charlie side,” I answered. “Prepping aircraft for launch. Anticipate on station in two minutes.”
A freshly charged LiPo pack slung beneath its belly, Raven leapt into the air and pitched forward, flinging itself toward the far side of the structure. In position, the aircraft executed a pirouette and settled into a hover, providing a commanding view of the inferno below and the firefighters arrayed against it.
At the conclusion of the exercise, the IC Battalion Chief, Scott Steiner, gave us his impression of our model’s effectiveness.
“The drone was very, very stable. I was actually surprised at the stability of the picture that we were able to get,” he said. “The clarity on the camera was remarkable, and being able to switch from thermal to a visible light image was valuable as well.
“I was surprised how quickly the drone could be deployed and get over to the Charlie side to give me real-time information about what’s happening right now.”[dingbat]
Roswell Flight Test Crew