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New Regulations Could Allow Camera Equipped Drones to Aid First Responders and Commercial Enterprises Alike

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When people hear the word “drone” they usually think of the military weapon system that has been in the news a lot lately. However, smaller, non-lethal versions may soon be a more common sight in our skies. Drones (also referred to as Unmanned Ariel Vehicles or UAVs) equipped with visual and infrared cameras, GPS and onboard computers are poised to make a big impact in firefighting, law enforcement and many commercial ventures once proposed FAA regulations come into effect. Many agencies and private companies are currently using drones under special FAA waivers, to assist them in such tasks as mapping wildland fires, patrolling borders, surveying crime and disaster scenes, search and rescue operations and environmental monitoring as well as conducting research, making movies and showing real estate. UAVs have almost no limits and can do many difficult jobs much cheaper than conventional aircraft and without the risk to a human flight crew.

Fighting wildfires is dangerous work. Large fires can generate a lot of smoke and heat, putting people at risk on the ground as well as in the air. Drones have aided firefighters by determining the range and intensity of fires through thick smoke and at night, when piloted aircraft are often grounded, with the installment of infrared (IR) cameras. These cameras operate in the thermal region, beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. They can “see” the edge of the fire as well as hot spots (that may otherwise smolder for days without detection) and flare ups that need immediate attention. Drones can fly out to check reports of smoke and see if firefighters are needed. This is much more cost effective than sending a truck plus it can get to hard to reach places a lot faster and without risk to a crew. Images transmitted from drones can give the Incident Commander critical information about a fire with the speed and detail not possible a few years ago. Large helicopter type drones have been used to resupply firefighters and even fight the fire directly by dropping water or fire retardant.

In Australia, a four engine “quadcopter” has been given credit for helping save at least 100 homes during a wildfire in Western Australia by providing live images and information on the fire. This was particularly critical at night and in bad weather, when manned aircraft are grounded, as fires often undergo changes in intensity and direction because of changes in the wind.

Urban firefighters can also benefit from camera-equipped UAVs, particularly tethered helicopter types. Being tethered removes most of the need to have prior authorization for use because there is little chance of an uncontrolled flight that could put other aircraft and ground personnel in jeopardy. This is critical for emergency situations where deployment time is of the essence. The autopilot system provides a safe, controlled platform for relaying images to a command center or individual firefighters. In the quest to protect lives and property UAVs may soon be as vital to a fire company as a hose or ladder.

Managing the airspace above fires becomes complicated when drones get involved. Problems arise when privately owned craft are flown to take images or video footage of the blaze. Last year a privately owned drone came close to causing all aircraft working the Sand Fire near Placerville, CA to be grounded out of safety concerns. Fortunately the drone operator was located and convinced to cease his operations! Fines have been handed out in some cases.

UAV use in the United States is often hampered by current FAA regulations that require the craft to be within sight of the operator at all times. If distance or thick smoke obscures the operator’s view, a piloted chase plane must be launched. If distance or thick smoke obscures the operator’s view, a piloted chase plane must be launched. Also, a Certificate of Authorization must be obtained for each operation that does not qualify as a recreational or “hobby” flight. Hopefully new regulations will soon relax these requirements and U.S. operators can enjoy some of the freedom that much of the world has had for years.

Law enforcement has rapidly embraced the use of drones, where allowed. UAVs are being used to help catch criminals in the act and look for escapees, gather intelligence at active crime scenes such as a robbery in progress or a hostage situation, survey accident and hazardous spill sites and search for lost persons. They cost much less than a helicopter and can be operated for a fraction of the cost. In the case of search and rescue missions, a drone can be flown for a cost of only a few dollars an hour while following a crisscross search pattern over a large area. Live video or images, visual or infrared (for night operations), can be transmitted back to operator. The following infrared images illustrate possible search and rescue or criminal activity scenarios.

In the B/W infrared image on left, the dark (warm temperature in this case) object bottom center is a person in the tree. The false-color IR image on right shows a person (center) on
knees with hands in air.

Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and India are also testing UAVs for police surveillance. UAVs are capable of such specific tasks as watching for vandalism at night, reading vehicle license plates and helping to catch cattle rustlers. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been using large drones since 2005 and currently owns about 10 of them. They often fly missions for the FBI, NOAA, the Department of Defense, local law enforcement and other agencies. Many local agencies have applied for and received FAA approval to operate UAVs but often do not purchase or deploy them because of privacy, safety and monetary concerns. The Seattle Police Department was one of the first law enforcement agencies in the country to receive approval and actually purchased two UAVs before abandoning them because of public outcry over privacy issues. Many individuals and civil liberties groups are worried they may be used for the potentially unlawful surveillance of people police only suspect may commit a crime. A UAV could intercept phone calls while visually tracking a person’s movement to build a database of their daily routine. While most see this as the ultimate “Big Brother” others think the inevitable use of UAVs in society will help bring our privacy laws into the twenty-first century. Currently, individuals have little privacy from aerial surveillance. Even the U.S Supreme Court has ruled in at least one case in Florida that there is no right to privacy from police observation from public airspace. Some states such as California have passed legislation that requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant prior to using a UAV except in emergencies.

Here in the U.S., the commercial use of UAVs has steadily grown over the past decade and is expected to be a multi-billion dollar industry in a few years. Because many countries do not have tight commercial regulations like we do, their UAV industry has grown ahead of ours. Japan, for instance, has been using commercial drones for nearly 20 years. Technology has made them easy to fly and relatively inexpensive, given their navigation capabilities. While a drone may not be delivering a package or pizza to your front door anytime soon it can certainly take on a number of business related missions which are limited only by our imagination. UAVs can and have inspected power lines, industrial flares, and storage tanks as well as taken aerial views of real estate, forests, mining operations and archaeological sites.

UAVs with infrared cameras can safely monitor and inspect equipment that may be otherwise hazardous to properly do. False-color images indicate level of contents in storage tank (left) and “hot spots” on power transmission lines (right).

At least one U.S company has received FAA exemption to use UAVs to inspect flare stacks. The UAV moves around and over the flare while it continues to burn. Typical inspection methods often require the flare to be shut down, losing time and money. A UAV can check the mechanical integrity of the stack while recording high-resolution images and video for further review which will then become part of the permanent record of the inspection. Repair or replacement of parts can then be performed if needed. Personnel report that the set-up is quick and easy and allows them to inspect in otherwise hard to reach areas. UAV inspection 5 has a direct impact on the safety of employees, the facility and the community by keeping flares working properly and within environmental regulations.

Infrared view of flare and stack that can be easily and effectively inspected by camera equipped UAVs
Infrared view of flare and stack that can be easily and effectively inspected by camera equipped UAVs; keeping the flare burning efficiently while helping to ensure the safety of employees and the surrounding area.

Infrared Cameras Inc. (ICI) located in Beaumont, Texas is introducing a UAV Sensor Control Module camera system consisting of a CPU (Central Processing Unit) controller and up to four cameras (for large UAVs) that can include ICI’s 9320 or 9640 (long-wave infrared-thermal), ICI SWIR 640/320 (short-wave infrared), near infrared and visible spectrum cameras that will create a highly detailed multispectral mosaic. The CPU takes, stores and manages the images while real-time video is transmitted back to the operator. Although it was specifically designed to provide detailed data in the field of precision agriculture, this system has already proven itself as a reliable means for collecting temperature data in many other areas. Aerial radiometric imaging, resource protection and management, building/roof inspections, search and rescue, archaeologic mapping, and industrial/energy inspection are just a few of the possible applications.

DJI’s Phantom 2 with ICI camera module mounted underneath. The ICI 9320 P long-wave IR camera is on the left while the new visible wavelength camera is to its right. This system was shown at the Unmanned Systems 2015 conference held in early May at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta and is available as a complete package (including UAV) from ICI.

Even though you may not see a UAV in your neighborhood tomorrow, mainly because of public concerns over safety and privacy, you can expect to see the private and commercial use of UAVs rapidly increase once FAA regulations are eased. One day the skies may be the only limit!