Drones have become critical tools for first responders in emergency situations. Firefighters, police officers, and rescue officers can now do their jobs better with the aid of an eye in the sky. Drones provide detailed situational awareness in a setting where every second counts. For rescue missions, drones are being used to locate missing or injured people in record time so they can be treated accordingly. For fire and police missions, drones allow officers to know what they are facing before entering a situation. This knowledge allows them to make the best possible plan of action to get a job done, protect civilians and victims, and minimize officer risks.
While drones have been tremendously helpful for these organizations, there have been some draw backs. One of the biggest issues, one that is common for almost all drone operators, is a drone’s limited battery life. On average a drone can only stay airborne for 20-40 minutes, a time that is often too brief in an emergency situation. Also hindering the benefit of drones for some emergency responders is the fact that drones need to be operated by specially trained and licensed individuals. That means that an emergency team with limited resources has to sacrifice one or more employees in an emergency solely to operate a drone when they could be using their skills on the ground better. Another issue has been the lag in time it takes to get a drone in the air, ready to collect data, as fast as possible.
Fotokite, a Swiss drone company has come up with a solution that makes using drones in emergency fields seamless. Founded in 2014, Fotokite now has offices in Syracuse, NY and Boulder, CO as well as their headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. In 2018, they won first place in the GENIUS NY Program, a $3 million award for innovative unmanned systems sponsored by the The Tech Garden incubator in downtown Syracuse, NY. The system that Fotokite presented over the months long competition is for their drone specifically designed with first responders in mind. Not only did Fotokite win the grand prize, but they also caught the attention of Appleton, WI based Pierce Manufacturing, the largest manufacturer of emergency response vehicles and apparatuses in the world.
Together, Fotokite and Pierce have developed a first of it’s kind drone to assist firefighters and other emergency workers. The system goes by two names, the Pierce Situational Awareness System, or the device itself known as Sigma. This past month, Fotokite announced Sigma’s newest feature, a case that attaches to the roof of a vehicle and allows the drone to be deployed instantly. Sigma is a square framed hexacopter with high resolution, live streaming, thermal and regular view cameras. The images are displayed instantly on a tablet to give emergency officers total situational awareness. But, as stated before, Fotokite had to find a way to set themselves apart from other drones and fill the gaps to create a perfect emergency response drone.
Sigma is able to stay airborne indefinitely because it receives it’s power from the vehicle it rides along with. Rather than being a piloted drone, Sigma is connected to an ultra thin tether. This tether provides Sigma with all the power it needs to stay in the air and live stream video data for the mission at hand. The tether also serves another purpose, as the drone’s autonomous pilot. Because the drone is connected to the tether at all times, it doesn’t need to be piloted by a human. All officers on the ground are free to preform their regular duties. While still compliant with all FAA flight regulations, Sigma can fly on it’s own. And lastly, because Sigma doesn’t need to be piloted, and it is mounted on the roof of a vehicle, with the simple push of a button it can be in the sky within 15 seconds. No longer is there a need to wait for a drone crew to set up before providing critical situational awareness.
Fotokite has outfitted several Peirce vehicles with the Sigma drone and rooftop case. Jim Johnson, president of Pierce Manufacturing announced that they have already begun practical tests with the system. “During the beta-program rollout earlier this year, the Pierce Situational Awareness System was flown in over 1,500 missions by fire departments across the country,” he said. “These missions included live fire responses, search and rescue missions, and training exercises.” Meanwhile, Fotokite CEO Christopher McCall stated that, “The Pierce Situational Awareness System by Fotokite is available today for fire departments and emergency responders across North America. Our system can be installed in any emergency vehicle. It is pilotless and requires no licenses, waivers, or training to use in the US due to the FAA tethered UAS rules which just came into effect. This is a completely new product category which allows first responders to quickly gain aerial situational awareness; we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from Fire Chiefs where the system is already in use and the Pierce dealer network means any fire department can get the installation and maintenance they require.”