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Using drones as a rapid response to respond to fires

Supporting the fire and rescue service in Bradford

Illustration by ILYA. Manipulated background image based on a photo by: Tim Green aka atoach [CC BY-SA 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

This use case focuses on emergency response drones for West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue service. Drones would provide high-quality information to support mission planners and controllers to direct resources when the alarm has been raised, arriving on the scene faster than is currently possible and helping staff plan an appropriate response for the seriousness of the incident.

  • Fast observation drones can reach the scene quicker than the emergency services
  • Emergency services can get aerial imagery of the scene and improve their response
  • Drone imagery can also be used to manage and inform firefighters’ response to the fire’s evolution in real time
  • We find this use case is both technically and economically feasible
Bradford drone use cases summary diagrams

Drones would provide real-time information to firefighters working at the site of an incident, giving early warning of structural problems, identifying hotspots or individuals in need of help. They could also help map out high-risk sites.The key benefits to drones for fire and rescue in Bradford would be:

  • Time savings, in particular around avoiding staff time being spent on false alarms
  • Cost savings, by avoiding the need for helicopters and by reducing resources spent unnecessarily on false alarms or small fires
  • Improved safety for firefighters and for members of the public caught up in fires

In order to better understand the feasibility of this use case, we have focused on how a drone service centred on Bradford Fire Station. As with the West Midlands, we’ve looked into a two-drone service that gets rapid eyes on the scene, followed by high-resolution imagery.

Bradford drone use cases map

The technology required for this use case is very similar to our proposed traffic incident response service in the West Midlands, and hence the challenges are similar. Safe operation across a whole city is critical and needs communications and traffic management infrastructure that is not currently in place; particularly if operating in the half of the city which is within Leeds-Bradford Airport’s controlled airspace.

To be feasible, regulations around operation in built-up areas would need to either be relaxed, or a specific exemption for these operations would need to be granted.

Our economic analysis suggests that such a service would be highly feasible: the cost savings it brings about for the fire and rescue service would pay for themselves within four years and deliver a net cost saving thereafter.

Drones would provide real-time information to firefighters working at the site of an incident, giving early warning of structural problems, identifying hotspots or individuals in need of help.

Conclusions and recommendations

Conclusions

The Bradford use case in summary has strong social and public benefits and is feasible in principle. However, there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome in order to make this use case a reality.

The key challenges (C1-7), based on our analysis, are:

C1. The development of a drone operation system that can operate safely, securely and reliably beyond visual line of sight, while maintaining appropriate levels of privacy.

C2. The provision of suitably managed unsegregated urban airspace allowing for interaction with other airborne systems.

C3. The development of key elements of drone and drone systems technology, particularly with respect to automated systems that remove routine elements of human interaction, eventually moving to a fully autonomous system.

C4. Achieving a large scale service with interoperability between all emergency services and fully integrated into the processes and systems for a rapid response by the appropriate organisations.

C5. Being able to operate in low light, at night time and in adverse weather conditions, including high winds, rain, snow and poor visibility.

C6. Achieving high endurance for long dwell-times at an incident.

Recommendations

A. Regulatory change to enable routine drone operations at scale, beyond visual line sight and near people, buildings or vehicles. (C1 and C2)

B. The development of a new form of airspace management to enable safe automated drone operations at scale. (C1 and C2)

C. Electronic conspicuity devices fitted to all air traffic and integrated into a traffic management system, to improve safety, security, privacy and positive public perception. (C1 and C2)

D. Secure interfaces into other systems and infrastructure needs to be considered with the number of interfaces minimised and encrypted. (C1)

E. Development of technologies that can demonstrate safe operation through high levels of redundancy, including secondary and possibly tertiary systems for command and control, navigation, power and propulsion systems. (C1)

F. Development of counter drone systems to identify and manage unauthorised drone operations, either malicious or accidental. (C1)

G. Development of registration and enforcement systems, with appropriate resource to ensure operator accountability. Including a centralised database showing licensing of operator competency, the platform ID and airworthiness and the capability to provide real-time monitoring of the airspace. (C1, C2 and C3)

H. Requirement to develop tools and standards for the verification and validation of the drone components, platforms and systems, with traceability of the hardware and software supply chains. This should include development of simulation tools to ensure safe operation and validation of autonomous and machine learning systems. (C1 and C3)

I. Development of appropriate safety cases for the use case that could be published and used as standard scenarios to support the regulator and the growing UK industry. (C1 and C2)

J. Establishment of a clear, accountable ownership and sign-off of the various aspects of operation. This includes maintaining airworthiness, oversight of system upgrades, assurance of pre-flight checks, the flight, associated safety related flight data and appropriate legal accountability and insurances. (C1 and C2)

K. Integration and interoperability between airspace management systems. This will require both technology solutions as well as co-ordinated standards, legislation and process development. (C2)

L. Coordination with other aligned technology areas around common challenges which could include collaborations with the robotics and autonomous systems and connected and autonomous vehicle communities. (C3)

M. There is an opportunity to develop technologies along with the Emergency Services Network being developed by the Home Office. (C4)

N. Development of technologies and regulatory frameworks to allow the systems to scale safely and in line with growing market demand. (C4)

O. Development and integration of processes and standards to alert all the relevant organisations that need to respond to a fire. These processes should then be able to scale to incorporate all emergency Services. (C4)

P. Development of capabilities to ensure safe flight during poor weather conditions and during darkness. (C5)

Q. Development of high endurance platform technology to ensure extended coverage and support during a major incident. This should include the development of systems that seamlessly handover from one drone to another. (C6)

Development of tests that prove out the capability of the platform and system in representative environments. Leading to trials with growing complexity, moving from controlled environments to full public demonstrations. (C1-C6)

Full paper