The Larimer County Unmanned Aircraft Systems (LCUAS) team out of Colorado took some time to answer a number of questions regarding their public safety drone operations. A big thank you to Kerry Koppes from the Poudre Fire Authority ion Fort Collins, Colorado for helping to educate all of us.
Q: When did you launch your fire department UAS program and what was the reason or issue that propelled your program forward?
A: “The program was originally conceptualized approximately 3 years ago and the forming agencies entered in to an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) for training and development. Over the course of the next year, the training COA (Certificate of Authorization) was drafted and research began on aircraft. The program kicked in to high gear in the summer of 2016 when the first round of pilots attended the first public safety flight program. Ironically it was during the week of the public safety flight program that the FAA released Part 107.
The program intended to capitalize on the rapidly evolving technology of drones and their potential applications in fire, rescue and law applications. Drone technology could be more rapidly deployed, and used for a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft without the associated risk of larger aircraft.
Some of the initial, intended uses were primarily for mapping at crash scenes, crime scenes and fire investigations. However, that has evolved into a wide variety of life safety applications.”
Q: Did you face any public reaction to the UAS of drone in your emergency response efforts and what initial and/or ongoing efforts have you found to be successful?
A: “The majority of the public reaction was good. We had anticipated some dissent due to concerns over privacy issues. However, the negative reactions were few and not lingering. This was largely due in part to actively involving our PIO’s from the various agencies on the team. This started with our PIO’s drafting some questions that they perceived would be asked by the community and media. After obtaining four pages of questions from our PIO’s, the team set about answering the questions in writing, and this document became a guiding piece behind some of our team guidelines. It also ended up becoming an FAQ document. Key elements to address any public concerns included the fact that we committed to not launching our live program until we had done public outreach and made our Operational Guidelines available to the public (in the interest of full transparency). Additionally, those Operational Guidelines set privacy standards that exceeded those required by law. Key documents are available on the public-facing website www.larimeruas.com.
We did have a media day event, just prior to the official ‘launch’ of our program, and multiple news outlets from the Colorado Front Range were invited. This media event began with an announcement and Q&A session that was moderated by our PIO’s. Media teams were then shepherded to various, staged, incident scenes (fire, hazmat, search & rescue, crash reconstruction and crime scene) to watch UAS in action and allow for photo and video ops.
One of our PIO’s also created a website for the program where the FAQ’s could reside, information could be shared about the program and visitors to the site could contact the team with questions via an electronic form. This also gave us a repository where we could make our operational guidelines available for anyone to view and we felt this provided a level of transparency that was critical to establish and maintain the program.
Whenever one of our drones deploy on a mission, our PIO’s make an effort to include mention of the drone deployment on the incident and include a link back to our team page, via their press release. This ongoing communication is crucial as it continues to show the value of the program and maintains the transparency we strive for. One such example came this week when PFA highlighted the use of its drone to document a fire scene, saving money by deploying the UAS rather than tying up the tower and its crew for use by the investigators to take photos. View that example at: http://bit.ly/pfabroadviewfire
We intend to host additional public outreach events, including visits to the schools, and we have plans to have some of our public school kids assist us in naming the drones on the team.”
Q: Where do you see the UAS going in your efforts? Are there more application or areas you feel the aircraft can be utilized?
A: “Frankly, the applications are limitless and evolving. Fire overwatch, whether structure or wildland, is a big piece for those of us on the fire side of this program. Drone flights, post-wildfire to aid in clearing hotspots, we see as a big application. We have already aided in fire scene investigations; multiple major crime scenes; a significant SAR event that involved three drones working different divisions of a large search area; multiple crash-reconstruction scenes; river scouting; and preplanning for water rescue; SWAT over watch during warrant attempts; traffic (pedestrian and vehicular) oversight during large-scale sporting events; and public education.
We also intend to use the drones to provide site access and construction progress updates to our responders while major construction projects are taking place in various parts of our districts. We are also evaluating a potential hazmat research project using drones outfitted with gas monitoring equipment and other ‘sensors.’ Recently we acquired payload release systems for one of our aircraft and will be training on its applications, including delivery of life vests, messenger lines for high line rigging and radios or sat. phones to communicate with potential victims in SAR incidents. Scouting for route finding for SAR and tech. rescue is another critical application we intend to delve in to further.
The sky is the limit, as it were.”
Q: Is your approach to have a few very talented pilots or a wider distribution of UAS with more junior pilots on every shift?
A: “As a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary team of fire, rescue and law personnel, this is a slightly more complex question. Right now, we have a core group of licensed remote pilots whose training exceeds federal standards. We intend to add a larger pool of trained, visual observers (VO) who could be distributed over multiple shifts. These visual observers are not required to be a licensed Remote Pilot under Part 107 but are required to attend a team taught VO training. This gives us a resource pool from which to develop pilots, gets more people familiar with the technology and greatly improves the UAS team as a whole
The advantage to the multi-agency approach is that our resource pool is deeper, and this team approach becomes a resource multiplier. If we have a fire incident but are short on ‘fire pilots,’ we can contact other agency pilots to come in and assist. As we all cross-train in drone applications for multi-disciplinary response, we’re much better off from a staffing perspective, than a single agency, single discipline approach.”
Q: Has your UAS program received a lot of cooperation from other departments in the public safety field and how did you accomplish that?
A: “Absolutely, and that is the crux of our program – and what makes it unique, compared to most. Our program was established from the beginning with representation from fire, rescue and law enforcement agencies. Currently there are six agencies represented on the team and a total of five aircraft. We didn’t want to create separate fire and police drone teams, as it diluted the potential of the program from a resource perspective. We accomplished this via a talk early-talk often approach that involved regular communication, combined trainings and meetings. All of the agencies on the team entered in to intergovernmental and/or mutual aid agreements during the development of the program. This was not without a lot of work. This certainly caused our program to develop more slowly, but we feel we have a good product as a result; one that will have some longevity.”
Q: What UAS craft are you flying now and what would you like to fly in the next year? Talk about technical capabilities.
A: “All five of the drones currently operated by the team, are the Inspire 1, version 2. Currently they are outfitted with electro-optical or daylight cameras. Some have zoom capabilities and we have two potential FLIR (forward looking infrared) cameras that we expect to acquire in the next few months. The fact that we are all flying the same basic airframe at the moment is no accident. You could refer to this as the ‘Southwest Airlines model.’ Southwest’s fleet is entirely Boeing 737’s of slightly varying characteristics. The concept behind this approach was pilot familiarity and cost savings on maintenance, something that’s key when considering the most efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars.
The fact we are all flying the DJI Inspire 1, allows us to have similar flight characteristics, controls, batteries and parts. One pilot can readily and efficiently switch to another agency’s drone and fly it safely and confidently as a result. In addition, the ability to bring more, compatible batteries and equipment to the fight is a big boon. If one agency ends up on a single drone deployment and it becomes an extended event, we can always contact another agency to bring in another bird or more compatible batteries. And lastly, maintenance is the same across the board.
All that said; we don’t believe there is one perfect drone for all applications. We are already looking at some smaller aircraft with collision avoidance for interior work such as SWAT or HazMat team entries. The DJI Mavic is first on our list for this application but we do not have one that is officially in our fleet yet. One of the agencies on our team is already working on acquiring the DJI Matrice 200/210 series. An FPV camera, an ability to fly in inclement weather and better flight duration are just a few of the advantages we see to this aircraft. In the long term, we are very interested in acquiring a fixed wing for wildfire response and SAR, but no makes or models have been nailed down yet. We are also very interested in pursuing a small, industrial grade drone for confined space recon.”
Q: Can you describe in detail a successful UAS mission and give me some photos?
A: “All of our missions have been successful in one way or another but we can’t point to a ‘save’ at this point in our program. It is just a matter of time, however. We have had multiple crash reconstruction/mapping missions that have saved countless hours and dollars on the ground; a large-area SAR search involving three drones in a large, mountainous area that kept us from having to send searchers in to treacherous terrain; and multiple SWAT/search warrant over-watch missions. We have also documented crime scenes from homicides and other major crimes as well as fire investigations. Most recently we have begun documenting a significant river in our area for public education and water rescue pre-scouting.”
Q: Do you feel the UAS provides a force multiplier in that it allows you to get new or better information to manage an incident without requiring adding additional personnel?
A: “Absolutely! And again, this was a significant catalyst for the program. We have already utilized the YouTube streaming function of the DJI products to give direct data to incident command teams on large scale sporting events and given SWAT teams extra ‘eyes’ on target locations during warrant attempts. We believe that this information gathering function of UAS is the meat and potatoes of any drone program. During any evolving event, better situational awareness (SA) for not only the crews on the ground but the IC is critical. We believe we can provide that SA with UAS technology.”
Q: What lessons learned have you discovered from your UAS operation? We all learn something the hard way.
A: “Some of these are addressed above, but to recap: Talk early, talk often with multi-disciplinary public safety partners. Don’t try to do this in a vacuum. Keep the citizens you serve aware of what you’re doing and be transparent about the operations of your program. Doing anything but this will kill any program, even if the intent is good. Establish quality operational guidelines; don’t just wing it. Establish intergovernmental agreements and/or mutual aid agreements in advance. Don’t wait for your first deployment to figure out how the logistics will work. Document everything! This is something we know by heart in public safety and it rings just as true in UAS and even more so as we not only have to answer to our chiefs, our responders and our citizens but also the FAA.”
Q: What would you like to tell departments who have not yet wandered into UAS arena yet who think all you have to do is buy one and anyone can fly it?
A: “Besides what is addressed above; start with a decent needs analysis. Figure out what your potential applications are in your area. Get buy-in from the top by presenting the needs analysis. Seriously consider a multi-agency approach as it will greatly increase your resource pool and distribute the costs. Do not keep the public in the dark about your program. This will kill your program and there are already multiple cases where this has happened. Get training!! Get your pilots in to UAS training programs and get them qualified as Remote Pilots under Part 107. Knowledge is power and will make your program defensible. As Flint from G.I. Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” Create operational guidelines and abide by them. Document each and every mission and training.”
Q: Have you run into a situation yet where you’ve been flying at an incident and have had other drones flying at the same incident from the public or news crews? If so, any tips on managing those conflicts?
A: “Not as of yet but we anticipate it will happen at some point. However, public education in advance can go a long way in minimizing the potential of other drone incursions.”
Q: What do people who think they want to be a professional UAS public safety pilot need to know? Is it something worth pursuing?
A: “It’s definitely worth pursuing as the end result is keeping responders and citizens safer via a less traditional response; not to mention it’s a pretty good time. However, about 90 percent of the work is done behind the scenes in research, documentation and creating deliverables. It’s not all about just flying. In addition, it’s important to keep abreast of the evolving technologies as this tech is changing on a quarterly basis. It’s also important if one’s intent is to apply UAS in public safety specifically, some level of training in public safety is critical. Having an awareness of how to integrate in the incident command structure, communicate with other public safety personnel and anticipate the needs of responders are all crucial skills behind public safety UAS flight.”