How Drones Are Helping Firefighters Save Lives, Avoid Harm, and Do Their Jobs Even More Efficiently
In recent years, drones have become an incredibly useful tool for fire departments.
Credit: Wix Stock Library
Ehang has announced a huge heavy-lift drone for firefighting that can shoot water at fires, and researchers have begun exploring the use of drone swarms to drop small amounts of fire retardant on a fire, mimicking a raincloud. But these solutions made to fight fires directly are still largely unproven and not commonly in use by firefighters.
Today, the primary way that firefighters use drones is through data collection. By allowing them to collect visual and thermal data remotely from the air, drones are helping keep firefighters safe while enabling them to make decisions quickly in life-or-death scenarios.
In general, firefighters use two types of drones: indoor drones and outdoor drones. In the sections below, we'll take a close look at each type and then provide concrete use cases from the field.
How Indoor Drones Are Used In Firefighting
Indoor drones are designed to be flown inside a structure using technology that keeps them from damaging objects and people around them.
A drone like Flyability's Elios 2 is protected by a cage, making it collision-tolerant in tight spaces. The Elios 2 also comes equipped with a high-definition camera to take sharp images and videos and a thermal camera that can capture thermal data even in smoke.
When at the scene of an active fire, firefighters use indoor drones to determine:
If anyone is inside the structure
The location of the fire
The extent of the fire
The condition of the building for safe entry
For example, the Marine Firefighters of Marseille tested sending the Elios 2 ahead of firefighters into a ship fire. Their goal was to determine if there were any people in danger on the ship and to assess the magnitude of the fire before boarding the ship.
The Elios 2 deployed inside a ship | Source: Flyability
Using the drone, the Marine Firefighters of Marseille were able to quickly assess the following:
Where people were located
Where the fire came from
The extent of damage to the vessel
If it was possible to save the vessel
Ships pose a uniquely dangerous situation for marine firefighters. It's significantly more dangerous for firefighters to board a ship without visual data provided by a tool like a drone because ships have many confined spaces where people, including firefighters, can get trapped.
More generally, firefighters commonly use indoor drones to enter burned-out buildings or sites where an explosion has happened, allowing firefighting personnel to assess the damage inside without putting themselves in harm's way.
In inspection scenarios, work in confined spaces requires inspectors to use ropes or scaffolding to get access to everything they need to see to complete their work, presenting yet another instance where drones can help keep people out of harms' way.
How Outdoor Drones Are Used in Firefighting
Outdoor drones like DJI's Matrice 300 are often much bigger and have multirotors that can help them cover a lot of ground quickly.
Firefighters use outdoor drones to survey the scene of a fire, locate people stuck inside the top floors of a burning structure, including skyscrapers, and inform firefighters about how a fire is unfolding. Dones can also quickly identify a structure's safest entry and exit points.
The DJI Matrice 300 | Credit: DJI
The thermal data collected by an outdoor drone can quickly identify:
Where people might be stuck
Where the fire is hottest
Where firefighters can safely enter and exit the structure to put out the fire and for rescue missions
Where there are lingering hot spots that might not be visible to the naked eye
Outdoor drones are also an extremely useful tool when dealing with wildfires. They can help firefighters determine how big the fire is and how to keep it from spreading rapidly, information that is otherwise difficult, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous to collect.
How Drones Are Used in Fire Investigations
Drones are also used to collect vital information after a fire has been contained.
In post-fire investigations, an arson investigator will examine video footage taken at the scene of the fire to determine the cause of the fire and how it moved while active.
Last year, the Rotterdam Fire Brigade used the Elios 2 to inspect the interior of a building that had been ablaze. They set out to determine if the fire was put out, inspect the building for damage and structural integrity, and determine whether it was safe to enter for further investigation.
Thermal data revealed that the fire was still burning, informing firefighters how to secure the area before safely entering the building to conduct a thorough investigation.
A photo taken by the Rotterdam Fire Brigade's Digital Exploration Team using the Elios 2 inside a burned-out building | Credit: Flyability
In addition to visual and thermal data, firefighters often create 3D models using photogrammetry or LiDAR-equipped drones, as well as orthomosaic maps of a fire scene so that they can study it in detail later. These investigations are crucial for firefighters to understand how a fire started and how it moved across land or through structures.
The information gleaned by drones from each incident can help create more robust pre-fire procedures and post-fire investigations.
How Drone Data Can Be Used to Fight Future Fires
Firefighters are also using drones to create orthomosaic maps of key buildings in their area, like hospitals and schools. These maps provide a detailed record of each structure, which they can use to identify all entry and exit points in case of a future fire or help law enforcement quickly identify evacuation routes in the event of an active shooter.
If there is a fire at that location, the firefighters can refer to the orthomosaic maps, getting a clearer idea of the situation they're facing. Post-fire drone footage can also be used to survey and document damages to the structure or area, creating historical archives.
And Keep in Mind — Firefighters Don't Just Fight Fires
Natural disasters—like hurricanes, earthquakes, and mudslides—require reinforcements from all public safety departments to assess the overall scope of destruction.
Firefighters can use drones to quickly survey large areas for infrastructure issues and search and rescue efforts. This bird's eye view helps firefighters triage rescue missions and get the proper medical support.
Firefighters and EMTs also use drones to deliver emergency supplies, like Automated External Defibrillators (or AEDs), first aid kits, and medicine in devastated areas.