Students from Wyckoff donate a drone they programmed to fire department.
Wyckoff firefighters now have a drone with a carbon monoxide sensor, thanks to high school sophomores (left to right) Drew Cochran, Cesco Ferrara and Benjamin Lin. (Photo: Marsha Stoltz/NorthJersey.com)
WYCKOFF — The Wyckoff Fire Department is now on the cutting edge of firefighting technology, thanks to three enterprising young inventors.
High school sophomores Francesco “Cesco” Ferrara, Ben Lin and Drew Cochran recently donated a drone with a carbon monoxide sensor to the fire department, believed to be the first volunteer force in Bergen County with the equipment.
They may not be the last: Robert Avsec, columnist for the FireRescue1 news website, says fire departments have just begun to explore what can be done with Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones.
“As fire departments gain more experience operating drones, and drones become bigger and capable of carrying greater payloads, drones will one day become as indispensable as fire trucks,” said Avsec. “It’s not going to be very long before drones become first-alarm resources that are launched simultaneously with responding engines, trucks and chief officers.”
Getting aerial views of emergency scenes and using thermal imaging to detect hot spots and find missing people at night are just some of the ways Avsec says fire departments could use drones.
The county Office of Emergency Management already has several drones, which it has deployed to search for a homicide suspect in Midland Park and to take photos of a church building fire in Englewood, helping investigators determine the source and cause of the blaze.
In Wyckoff, Fire Chief Tim Brock says their drone will be “very useful” in helping the department assess dangerous gas levels without endangering its firefighters.
“We can use it in any building large enough to allow us to maneuver the drone,” said Brock. “Otherwise we have to send someone in to test for gas levels.”
The drone’s camera and video capabilities will also make it useful in a variety of rescue and fire detection situations, Assistant Fire Chief Joe Vander Plaat said.
‘They Didn’t Give Up’ The students’ donation, given during a brief ceremony Monday, was many years in the making.
Ferrara, Lin and Cochran began the project as eighth graders in the Wyckoff Extended Learning program at Eisenhower Middle School.
“We were looking to do something fun with a drone that would solve a big problem in the community,” said Drew. “At first we thought about drug abuse, finding people using drugs.”
But advisor Loris Chen says she pointed out that there might be privacy concerns with drones hovering over residents and vehicles.
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Then, a member of the county’s emergency response team visited the school to give a demonstration with one of its drones.
“That was all they had to see,” said Chen. “Now there was a purpose.”
The group focused on creating a device that would help the local fire department.
“We decided it would be helpful for the department to have something that could fly into buildings, detect a gas leak, and we decided on a carbon monoxide sensor,” said Ben.
One problem: The estimated bill for their invention was over $1,000.
Chen, who by this time was invested in the project, offered up royalties from textbooks she had written. The boys also chipped in, using allowance money and winnings from an essay contest.
Programming the sensor proved more time-consuming and complicated than expected, however.
A test flight indicated there was not enough stability in the design, so they had to design a case to hold the sensor, Chen said. Wyckoff police officer Kyle Ferreira, who is licensed with the county to do drone work, helped test the device, but the sensor malfunctioned, requiring another year of programming to get it to communicate with a computer, Cesco said.
The boys nonetheless continued to work on the project in their spare time, even though by then they were attending different schools – Ferrara and Lin at Ramapo High School and Cesco at Indian Hills.
Two weeks ago, the boys traveled to the township fire department to test the sensor. After pumping a closed room full of leaf blower exhaust, they checked the sensor, and – it worked.
“I am so proud of them,” said Chen. “When they left Eisenhower, they didn’t give up. That says a lot to me about what they will be as future engineers and designers.”
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