Critical incidents require accurate and rapidly conveyed information. First on-scene commanders will often get an initial size-up, but it’s often five to ten minutes after arrival that the overall situation becomes clear. Getting accurate information could be made more readily available with the introduction of drones, or small aerial aircraft, controlled by firefighters on the ground. Two companies—Honeywell and W.S. Darley & Company—offer ICs exactly that capability and more through helicopter-like drones.
The concept of a commercially available Ducted Unmanned Vehicle, or cDUV is not really new, but it’s gaining acceptance with a wide array of entities, including the fire service. An incident commander might send the cDUV into an area where he/she might be reluctant to send firefighters, for instance, into a commercial fire without known occupants.
Imagine a chemical fire racing through a commercial structure. If the cDUV is equipped with sensors (and it could be), then the drone could fly through the smoke and report back on the combination of chemicals and their threat matrix.
The cDUV is about the size of a large pizza with four legs, weighing less than 4.4 pounds with a single battery source powering an engine that turns two fan rotors. The cDUV fits inside a 36- by 18- by seven-inch transport case.
The unit has a ceiling of 15,000 feet, a rate of climb of 20 feet per second, a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour (mph), and a radio frequency (RF) range of 3,280 feet. It can hover for 40 minutes and carry a maximum payload of 1.7 pounds. Honeywell is developing a new battery to extend the cDUV’s current battery life of 30 minutes to 2 hours. The 4.4-pound weight limit is a critical number because you can fly it without filing a flight plan if it’s less than 4.4 pounds.
The cDUV can hover, is programmed to stop and self correct its position if the operator stops controlling it, and is programmed to self correct if the wind blows it out of position. It can be operated at night, in the rain, and in fog but is limited to flying in winds of 17 mph or less.
Wyman notes that the cDUV can be outfitted with plug-and-play payloads such as a gimbal and stabilized digital video camera; an electro-optical infrared camera; and chemical, biological, and radiological sensors.
W.S. Darley & Company offers the Stinger drone. The Stinger is 36 by 25 by 16 inches, weighs six pounds without batteries, and sports a carbon fiber two-millimeter frame. Payloads include a camera or a radiation sensor. Flight time is 15 to 40 minutes, depending on the payload. The Stinger has three camera options available: a nonzoom HD digital camera, an HD digital camera with zoom, and a thermal imaging camera. All the camera choices are gyro-stabilized, so even in a wind, there’s no jostling of the image.
The Stinger is powered by six motors vertically opposed. Three face up and three down, and they counter rotate. That means three are accelerating while the other three are decelerating. It’s different from a traditional helicopter that uses a tail rotor to counteract the torque of the main rotor. Our drone’s motors cancel each other’s torque.
The case that holds the Stinger in ground transit serves as its command post, Mocerino points out. A large LCD screen attached inside the case receives and displays the live feed from the drone.
The next step is proper legislation that permits this type of aircraft to be used by the fire service. Currently, there is uncertainty about how and when these drones can be used. What is certain, however, is that they can help protect firefighters, both inside and outside of dangerous fire conditions.