As always, my approach to flying Unmanned Aircraft Systems or drone for the fire department may be different than yours. Additionally my frame of reference is modified because I am an aircraft pilot first so my approach is obviously slanted towards aircraft operations and flight in the National Air Space. I am not the holder of the universal truth on this subject and you may have a different point of view.
Regardless of my disclaimer, here are the four things I feel confident about as a drone pilot on the way to a scene.
In my vehicle I am able to receive the latest NOAA weather radio updates. NOAA weather provides me with an overview of current and trending conditions. It broadcasts continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. NWR broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
These updates are nowhere near as precise as what I typically use from ForeFlight for aircraft flight. These give me a good radar overview, trends, current aviation weather, and a discussion of expected conditions.
While aviation from ForeFlight weather is without a doubt more comprehensive, the advantage of using the NOAA weather broadcast on the way is it repeats so I don’t have to divert much of my attention to listen. If I miss something it will loop anyway. And it gives me a good overview of what is going on right now, if there are any warnings in the area, and a background of what is coming up. You can listen to a sample broadcast from Ohio, below.
I pay particular attention to current winds and warnings. Our Matrice 210 UAS is IP43 rated so it can fly in a wide range of weather and is water resistant. Flying in a drizzle or light rain is okay. Flying is heavy rain is not.
2. Landing Zone
One of the biggest hazards to safe flight is scene congestion. However, the greatest risk to safe flight is without a doubt is:
- Operational Activity
The scene of the event is the focal point for activity and movement. It’s also the location of the most number of fire department members, equipment, and the public.
While all people are curious and well intentioned, they seemingly all want to talk to you as the pilot when you are flying. Those distractions can pose a significant safety risk and should be avoided at all times. A curt “can’t talk right now” is not an award winning public relations moment for the general public.
The optimum landing zone (LZ) should have at least ten feet on all sides of clear area. Optimally it will be in a location where you can tape off a radius to keep people away from your flight operations.
In most cases you can be near the fire scene, even a street or two away, and get the peace you need to conduct safe operations.
For example, rather than fight your way into a congested fire scene and then deal with all the flight risk factors at the scene, look for a much safer landing zone nearby.
Using current technology you no longer need to be located next to the incident commander to provide streaming video to them and good communications can take place over the radio.
3. You Must Have Confidence in Your Aircraft
The last thing you want to be focused on as you arrive at the scene is if you charged your batteries, the SD card is full, or you forgot a critical part needed for flight. A successful pre-flight is best accomplished by a successful post-flight from the last launch.
I admit, when I’m tired from a flight operation the last thing I want to do is all the housekeeping stuff. I’ve told myself in the past I’d get to it later, only to have later be sooner than I expected. So I now take care of all those annoying things as soon as possible when I return from the last flight.
When you get back from a flight you should immediately dump all the still images and video from your SD card and then format it again and drop it back in your UAS. You should also get the batteries charging. This is something I do in the back of my Tahoe so I never leave without the batteries. I learned that lesson the hard way. I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way, ugh.
Between flights you also need to make sure you have updated the controller or firmware software on the aircraft and verified the update was installed successfully. You also should review the software changelog to understand what features or functions were added or subtracted from the software.
Ultimately when you roll up on your designated landing zone you should have complete confidence in your aircraft, supplies, and operational capability.
4. Did You Pre-Flight Your Comfort
Since your optimum LZ may be away from your department support and you are on your own, I suggest you make sure you are carrying bottled water, some sort of energy snacks, and a way to discretely relieve yourself if need be. You can easily jump in the back of your truck and let some of that water out. I always carry these Travel Johns with me in the airplane and truck. The material inside the bag turns to gel when moisture hits it so you don’t need to worry about spilling the contents.
From my point of view, I represent my department even if I’m all by myself. You never know who might be watching and some video of you sneaking into the treeline to relieve yourself is not the publicity you or your department are looking for.
Even on the way to a call your brain should either be thinking about the immediate operational considerations or rest easy knowing your equipment is fully operational and ready to launch.
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