In the past decade, drones have increasingly been utilized on the frontlines of fire, rescue, and law enforcement operations. They provide tactical advantages that were previously challenging or just downright impossible without multiple resources or sufficient manpower, like detecting lost hikers via thermal imaging at night or surveying damage from natural disasters from a safe distance.
Also referred to as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), drones are not toys to send up into the sky haphazardly. They’re advanced, often expensive pieces of equipment that require skill and a responsible mind-set to be safely managed. That’s why companies like PropelUAS exist—to help aviation novices effectively navigate the national airspace.
“There’s lot of value to drones in the fire and EMS world,” says Chad Tyson, program coordinator for PropelUAS who has nearly two decades of aviation experience as a manned aviation pilot, air traffic specialist, and consultant to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Tyson notes how capabilities like thermal imaging and multispectral imaging give crews a better operational picture of wildfires they couldn’t otherwise see with the naked eye. “It’s a tool that is invaluable once they are able to use it,” he says.
PropelUAS’s work mostly revolves around government contracting, like helping the FAA implement UAS rules and regulations and ensuring they make sense functionally. The company’s team members also use their combined knowledge and experience in aviation to help government agencies and companies develop UAS programs that align with their missions.
“If it’s going to be used in hazmat, we will develop scenarios for the training program that would be tailored to hazmat-type experiences,” Tyson says. “It’s going to be efficient and safe for them to operate, because we know where regulations stand, how to interpret them, and how to help organizations future-proof their programs.”
Establishing a Safety Culture
To be eligible to operate a drone commercially, an aspiring remote pilot must complete Part 107 training, or a comparable program developed under a certificate of authorization, which PropelUAS provides. Yet Tyson says they don’t only do the training to help people pass the license test—that can be done online. PropelUAS training offers the chance to ask questions and get helpful tips on specific elements of aviation, like navigating in varying weather conditions, which an off-the-shelf online program can’t do.
“Our biggest goal is making sure you are a safe, efficient, and knowledgeable operator so you’re not going out there and creating an unsafe environment,” says Tyson. This is especially important when combining manned and unmanned aviation during more advanced lifesaving operations, like responding to wildfires.
“UAS is an invaluable tool to monitor and keep visuals and sensors on an active fire. It gives you that eye in the sky you can constantly keep up there,” says Tyson. That’s something you couldn’t do with a helicopter due to fuel limitations, whereas drones can be tethered, run on energy sources other than batteries, or utilize multiple assets on a rotation. Airplanes are limited in their use as well because they require more space to orbit, so integrating a UAS to monitor the fire while manned aviation drops fire retardant on that fire is a resourceful path to take.
“When mixing manned and unmanned flights, you want to make sure the remote pilot has training that’s commensurate with what a manned pilot would have to make sure that they can operate safely together,” Tyson says.
Similar to the medical field requiring a just culture to ensure patient safety, developing a safety culture for an agency’s UAS program is vital to maintain safe and successful operations. Tyson says first responders are quick to understand the importance of this because safety is such a deeply ingrained quality in emergency services.
“When it comes to law enforcement, fire rescue, hazmat [personnel]—they get it because their lives depend on it, much like in manned aviation,” he says. “Your life depends on you being safe and knowing the safety requirements of your job.” Responders should be “thinking of UAS with the same mind-set as handling firearms or how they’re breaching buildings in a safe manner.”
Tyson and his colleagues develop a regulatory analysis, which is essentially a safety proposal for agencies to abide by in their UAS program. They design it based on the agency’s airspace and what kinds of scenarios it might encounter in both the easiest and most complex areas to operate. Tyson will then spend a day running through those scenarios with the agency to make sure personnel know how to operate in varying environments.
Tyson strongly encourages Part 107 pilots to continue their training over time. While it’s not required, it benefits them when retaking their mandatory knowledge test every two years to maintain their license, since regulations change and new information and tools often emerge.
“We don’t see it as a one-and-done thing,” he says. “You always need to be learning.” This concept is one first responders should have no problem accepting, considering they’re required to regularly earn continuing education credits to maintain their certifications. PropelUAS aims to assist organizations with this process by developing recurrent training for them.
Making the Investment
Although the advantages of investing in drone technology seem obvious, it’s not that easy of a sell to decision-makers. They often see money as better spent on replacing aging equipment and vehicles, making funding the biggest challenge for fire, EMS, and police departments to overcome when preparing to launch a UAS program.
Tyson says decision-makers who haven’t yet seen the full scope of advantages drones could bring them either “don’t always understand that it’s a tool just like a breaching axe, or they are worried about the press or privacy concerns it could generate.”
This is why it’s so important that the messaging around drone programs is communicated properly—another element of the process where PropelUAS offers assistance. Usually, internal stakeholders and members of the public are either concerned about privacy or afraid an organization won’t use the technology for useful or legal purposes.
“How you manage and communicate the program to the public can make or break your program, because if your public is not behind it, then you’re going to have an uphill battle trying to use your tool or get the decision-makers to allow it,” Tyson points out. The L.A. Police Department had very high-profile challenges from the public when attempting to launch drone activities, and the outcry prevented the first drones purchased from being used before they became obsolete.
Tyson says communication is key to predictable outcomes. While it’s up to agencies whether they want to hire PropelUAS to help them manage that communication, he notes that if it’s valuable for their larger clients, it’s going to be valuable for their smaller clients as well. If it’s communicated the right way, the public will see the benefits of the investment.
The Future of EMS Technology
When exhibiting at the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ 2018 Hazmat Response Teams conference, Tyson learned most attendees he spoke with would have a UAS in their vehicle if it weren’t for budgetary restrictions.
“I would hope to see drones becoming a more regularly integrated tool in these organizations in the near future,” says Tyson. At the Chicago Auto Show, the company exhibited its ambulance UAS concept, which promotes utilizing a UAS as a supplement to the mission of the EMS crew. For example, deploying a UAS carrying an AED to the scene of a cardiac arrest or Narcan to an overdose call could provide earlier lifesaving interventions, particularly if the UAS carries administration instructions for bystanders. This scenario would be ideal in major cities, where crews can easily get stuck in traffic during rush hour while responding to a call just a few miles away. With a UAS, though, an AED could reach a patient within 2–3 minutes traveling 40 mph in a straight-line distance.
Unfortunately, many of the ideas PropelUAS proposes in emergency services are simply not possible to execute today. “That’s mainly due to technology and regulatory enablers,” says Tyson. “You can’t do a lot of this beyond visual line of sight. We have special waivers and a ton of safety mitigations in place. Once the technology becomes much more reliable and safer from a regulatory standpoint, and those enablers are figured out to meet those milestones, I think we’ll start seeing some of these cool concepts such as delivering defibrillators ahead of an ambulance arriving.”
Despite the technology for these advances not being developed yet, UAS technology is rapidly evolving. Tyson says it moves at the same speed as computers, with upgrades happening every six months to a year, if not faster. While most equipment or vehicles purchased by agencies is meant to last 5–10 years, drone technology can be upgraded every year if financially feasible.
“If they don’t have some type of life-cycle establishment, they could be missing out on opportunities for advancement in technology, but that’s probably going to be a big hurdle from a budgetary standpoint,” he says.
Because of this quick life cycle, agencies need to establish what kind of UAS they could reasonably invest in.
“We want to make sure that they’re maximizing their budgetary dollars while keeping up with the latest technology that fits within that budgetary cycle,” says Tyson. “We’d make sure we communicate the proper life-cycle time frame for the equipment they are using based on the mission they want and then communicate that to the people in charge of budgeting and why it needs to be done.”
With these budgetary restrictions, it’s no surprise the adoption rate of drone technology remains relatively low in U.S. emergency services. Yet with proper planning and messaging and an understanding of the tremendous return on investment, even savings in other areas, this pipe dream can become a reality.
PropelUAS helps organizations “develop a meaningful story that makes sense based on all of their requirements and variables. They can take that story to their stakeholders, who can then set a budget to establish the program,” says Tyson. Because PropelUAS is “technology agnostic,” they don’t tell people what brands to buy, but rather guide them through the process of buying the right equipment for their needs. From there, they finalize the training and support program development, and ensure the program manager is aware of both programmatic and safety risks.
“Having a UAS program is a gamble for every agency. It’s just about them having the willingness to explore the options and be open-minded about what is possible with the resources they have,” Tyson explains. With that said, he stresses that adopting a UAS program shouldn’t be taken lightly. Agencies need to have backing behind it and the resources to support it to ensure they run a safe and efficient program.
“We hope organizations will look to companies like us that have experience in this [area] to help them design their programs, which ultimately would save them money and potential legal problems in the long run,” says Tyson. “You wouldn’t go to a Kia dealership to buy your next fire truck. They don’t make vehicles that take a ladder and hose. You want the right tools for the job. Finding companies that have experience developing UAS programs is going to make your program more successful in the long run.”