Firefighting drones will soon fly over New York City

Trevor Mogg
Firefighting drones will soon fly over New York City
New York City's firefighters will soon have drones helping them to tackle blazes. The custom-built machine, which can capture both standard video and infrared images, will help personnel assess a scene so they can better decide how to deal with the emergency.

As long as it doesn’t get too close to the action, the high-flying technology is an obvious choice for fire departments seeking to understand the full extent of an emergency situation before risking the lives of their personnel.

We’re talking about drones, which the New York City Fire Department is about to begin using at major fires and emergencies to provide additional situational awareness for those on the ground.

The robust custom-built machine, which at $85,000 costs rather more than your everyday consumer drone, is capable of capturing both standard video and infrared images, according to the New York Times.

When dealing with a serious incident, the department dispatches its gadget-equipped Command Tactical Unit to try to get a handle on the situation before the main team arrives. Current gear includes items such as handheld cameras, tablets, smartphones, and Wi-Fi hotspot devices.

A 2014 gas explosion in Manhattan showed Timothy E. Herlocker, the director of the department’s operations center, just how useful drones could be for the tactical unit. Thanks to the efforts of an amateur drone operator at the scene, Herlocker and his team could get a bird’s-eye view of the situation, allowing them to make a more informed decision about how to approach the danger area and tackle the blaze.

But making the technology a permanent part of the department’s regular kit is clearly taking time. Besides designing and building a suitable machine, the department is also having to deal with the fact that much of the built-up city comprises airspace off-limits to unmanned aerial vehicles.

As a result, the city has struck a deal with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowing the tactical unit to request clearance to launch a drone each time it deems such action necessary – a process that should take no more than 15 minutes.

To aid control and keep it safely within a certain space, the department is also considering attaching a tether to its remotely controlled copter, prompting Herlocker to describe the machine as “the most boring drone you’ve ever seen in your life.”

“All it does is goes up, and it stays there,” Herlocker told the Times.

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Fire departments are the latest in a growing number of interested bodies that are starting to realize the full potential of drone technology. The FAA recently issued its first set of comprehensive guidelines for the commercial use of drones, with a slew of industries – movie production, agriculture, and real estate to name a few – looking to incorporate them into their work.

The New York City Fire Department hopes to officially deploy its intelligence-gathering drone later this month, and wants to add two more machines to its kit by the end of the year.