Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are one of the most talked about technologies of the last 12 months, inspiring ideas and creating concern in almost equal measure. These drones feel like new technology, but back in 2007 the West Midlands Fire Service became the first fire department in the UK to use them operationally. The take up of drones within the emergency services is strong but what do you need to consider to make a good investment in this area?
What are your requirements?
Understand the usage scenarios for your drone, the deliverable data, the operating environment and your process for integrating with it – without this you will invest in the wrong equipment. Also, as this is a relatively new area for the emergency services, run trials on real exercises to understand what kit works in your context and if this is a technology with a real solution for your problem. This will help you understand what is possible and clarify what you really need and what you don’t.
Don’t forget that the law in the UK restricts drone operations for good safety reasons – check that if your requirements were fulfilled it would actually be legal to operate.
Capability = compromise
It’s really important when considering a set of requirements for a drone that you keep in mind that many capabilities “trade off” against each other. An efficient multi-rotor drone that can fly for long periods will probably have relatively large propellers. Large propellers result in a poorer tolerance to gusty wind conditions. If you put a set of requirements out to the market, keep in mind that the super light multi-rotor drone with high quality sensors that can fly for 60 minutes in winds of more than 30mph might not exist for good reasons!
Integration is everything
It is no good to your operations if the drone is an isolated capability when it is used in the field. The value of a drone platform is significantly enhanced if it integrates with your process and information systems. As a minimum you need to consider the systems to transmit the data or video from where the drone operator is to the local commander, and in critical environments you need to look at how to get that data to remote control rooms.
As an example we have worked with Primetech and integrated both the DJI Inspire and the Aerialtronics’ Altura Zenith into their MultiNet Comms integrated communications system. This platform consists of Ka band mobile satellite broadband/mobile backhaul comms, local highly resilient and secure COFDM Wi-Fi and radio, and integrated body cameras, all of which are contained in self-powered cases that fit in the back of an estate car. This system enables us to arrive at a location and within 15 minutes be providing live data from the drone to anywhere in the world. This is a system that we have been able to use at several events including Stage Two of the Tour of Britain. MultiNet Comms is also being used by event management and communications company Controlled Events, at events such as the America’s Cup. Drones can help organisers keep a closer eye on all aspects of crowd movement and public safety.
A photography drone is not an emergency drone
In part most of the excitement in drones comes from their amazing capabilities compared to their purchase cost. A great example would be a DJI Inspire. This £3,000 machine delivers high-quality video straight to the ground that could be transmitted anywhere. The assumption that this is all you need really illustrates the lack of understanding in the buying community. Emergency situations happen anytime and in any weather. Two key operating parameters of the DJI Inspire are that it cannot fly in the rain and it can only operate in winds of no more than 10m/s. Let’s take Manchester as an example; the long-term (30 year) average count of raining days is approximately 140 days per year. Historic windspeed data is often only available in averages but the simple fact remains that more bad things happen in bad weather.
Looking at the camera on the DJI Inspire is even more revealing. It provides a great wide angle “macro view” of an area but that is all it can do. In fact you need to fly at about 20 feet from a person to be able to get a clear view of their face for identification purposes. It has no zoom, no thermal and the aircraft itself can only lift a few hundred grams. It is a great machine for what it was designed to do – video and stills of a large area at height.
There are several manufacturers who provide equipment in this space but I am going to use the one I operate as an example, the Aerialtronics Altura Zenith. It has a dual thermal-zoom visible light camera, it can be supplied with a gas or radiological sensor, and it flies in the rain and high winds up to 35mph. If I have a mission in a difficult situation I can complete it – the capabilities of the aircraft support the task at hand.
A common discussion is the displacement of police helicopters with drones with the assumption that cost savings will be delivered as a result. I have a number of issues with this, not least of which that drones do not equal helicopters. Helicopters have the capability to travel great distances, something that drones are expressly prevented from doing by the CAA at this time. Helicopters can move people, equipment and can provide a view from much higher in the sky than a drone is able to operate. However, drones can get closer to your subject of interest, are cheaper to deploy (on a per hour basis) and cheaper to buy. Also, there are situations, like searching a river, where the drone can fly under the trees enabling considerably more effective use of thermal imaging.
If a police force invests in drones it will need more than one unmanned aerial system (UAS) to deliver appropriate response times and provide for some level of resilience. Take the example of an imaginary, largely rural, police force that needs two drones to provide a sensible level of cover. The cost of the equipment is negligible even if they buy two £50,000 drones. It’s the resourcing that costs the real money. Operating a drone in a live situation where interpretation of data is required immediately means that at least two, if not three people are in a team. The two teams for the two drones need cover to three shifts and all of the associated on-costs need to be considered. The surprising thing is that this can quickly become as expensive as their current (imaginary) bill for accessing the National Police Air Service. Obviously this misses an essential point – police helicopters are usually available for a small number of days per year in these contracts, the drones would be available to use any time with very low additional “per hour costs”.
Process and training
When investigating bringing a drone into service, most people quickly discover the need to become qualified and gain a PFAW (Permission for Aerial Work) from the CAA. This training, exam and associated flight test concentrate on the basics of safe operation of a drone. This is really the first step in becoming a competent operator. It’s like passing your driving test – you still have a lot to learn. One of the weaknesses of the PFAW process is that there is no mandatory requirement for operator training on your drone. It is possible to pass without ever being trained on the platform you operate. Just because you can avoid this step doesn’t make it a good idea to do it!
I have participated in and observed many exercises with drones and they can be amazingly useful tools in an emergency situation. However they can also be a hindrance if you don’t have a clear operating model and clear communications. Eyes in the sky are only useful if you know the direction they are looking, you can interpret the data and you can communicate this within the team and to your commanders. It is my view that a lack of investment in this area undermines the utility of the drone.
Don’t think of your drone as an isolated system, think of it as an integrated part of your operations. In this way you will be much more likely to purchase the right drone, supporting equipment and training. Don’t assume that buying a drone is like buying a car, its actually like buying a car over 100 years ago with little or no regulation over manufacturing and very few standards you can rely on. Test the kit in context with your team before making a substantive investment, and yes it might mean you have to pay for some of the trials because they are more substantive than a demo.
Get it wrong and you will have an expensive paperweight at best, at worst an operational failure.