Drone Applications in Public Safety
Written by Adel Mamou   

Convergence is the key to greater drone adoption in public safety

DRONES PLAY AN INTEGRAL ROLE in life-or-death operations for the search-and-rescue teams, first responders, and firefighters that use them. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being called upon to enable integral and crucial safety decisions, whether they're employed to create 3D-modeled maps of disaster scenes, thermal maps of buildings, or a bird's eye view of a search-and-rescue operation.

At this relatively early stage in their adoption, they've already progressed beyond a “nice-to-have” or an updated spin on existing tools. Instead, they provide brand-new capabilities and safety measures for the public-safety teams that use them.

After Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on the Texas coastline last year, a team from Texas A&M's Center for Robot Search and Rescue used UAVs to scan the shoreline for information disaster-recovery teams could use in their efforts. For the first-time last year, drones were used by the Los Angeles Fire Department to assess wildfire damage and measure hotspots. And in the Grand Canyon last year, drones were used in a search for missing hikers, giving search teams the ability to cover more ground in a short amount of time. 

However, while drone adoption is on the rise in each of these fields, drone usage is still relatively rare in public-safety operations. The fact that drone usage in each of these fields is still considered a news story is a testament to that fact.

After all, you rarely read stories that discuss how a search-and-rescue team used a pair of binoculars, a disaster-response team communicated via telephone, or a squad of firefighters employed a truck and a firehose. While drones are becoming an equally fundamental tool in these high-stakes operations, drone usage is still considered relatively novel.

So, what have been the barriers to drones becoming part of the default toolkit for public-safety organizations? As we anticipate the widespread adoption of UAVs in several commercial markets, it’s a perfect time to examine what’s working, which features are in demand, and what goes into creating a drone for specialized markets.

Enabling the Commercial Drone Boom

According to Drones: Reporting for Work, a 2016 report by financial giant Goldman Sachs, commercial and civil-government use cases represent the biggest growth market in the drone industry. Goldman Sachs Research projected $13 billion to be spent on commercial and government drones between the study’s publication date and 2020.

Goldman Sachs is not alone in these aggressive growth forecasts. A recent multi-part report in The Economist called commercial drones “the fastest growing part of the market,” and as senior research analyst Gerald Van Hoy noted in this Gartner study, convergence between commercial and recreational drone technologies are “[blurring] the lines, allowing personal drones to be used in many special-purpose applications.”

This trend will only continue to grow in the coming years, and it will be a major catalyst for increased adoption in public-safety applications. But what, exactly, does this “convergence” between commercial and recreational drones mean? And how does it benefit the end users, the organizations contemplating drone adoption, and the companies that are making these specialized UAVs?

In a nutshell, it means nearly everything. Even as drones become more specialized to tackle the needs of specific verticals—customized features for search-and-rescue, firefighting, and first-responder operations—the common ground created by convergence will eliminate barriers to adoption, development cycles, time to market, and accessibility across multiple industries.

The Importance of Convergence

Imagine stepping into the cockpit of a commercial airliner. There are knobs, buttons, levers, gauges, and blinking lights everywhere. Unless you have gone through years of flight school, the interface itself can be intimidating and overwhelming. 

But what if flying that jetliner was as simple as driving a go-kart? That analogy represents what’s taking shape with advanced commercial drone technology.

User experience is one of the biggest factors driving drone adoption in commercial industries—just as it is in the world of consumer technology. Because both markets are aligned in terms of providing users with superior ease-of-use, it means drone manufacturers are refining user experience across the board. 

These improvements will help drive commercial adoption in the coming years. Public-safety organizations are already faced with the challenges of assessing their core needs, finding the budget, and comparing product specifications to pinpoint the proper UAV for their needs. And once all those decisions are made, they must devote time and resources to train team members to pilot their drones. 

For that final crucial step, any reduction in instruction time is critical. Pilots must be able to fly their drones without intensive training. As such, the simple control schemes and intuitive interfaces of consumer drones are becoming the norm—regardless of the drone’s capabilities and complexity.

More Convergence = Fewer Development Silos

User experience isn’t the only area in which convergence is impacting the drone market in positive ways. When you examine the landscape of consumer drones, it’s clear that imaging capabilities are a top priority across the board. Sensors, video resolution, and image processing are improving universally. 

While commercial drones in the fields of search-and-rescue and firefighting require specialized thermal sensors, improved traditional sensors are also a top priority. When scanning a scene for missing persons or creating a detailed 3D model of a scene, traditional image quality is extremely important.

What’s more, consumer drones are also becoming more portable and more durable. Of course, these are also traits that have significant benefits in the field of public safety. 

All of these alignments between consumer and professional or commercial needs may seem relatively inconsequential—and perhaps even a given. However, consider the fact that a drone is a vehicle. Now, consider the sheer variation of vehicles across the fields of public safety and public service. 

You have ambulances, you have garbage trucks, you have police cars, you have firetrucks, and so on. Each one of those vehicles is quite different, and each one of them is built for radically different tasks. Each one of those vehicles requires independent teams dedicated to specialized development. 

With commercial drones, the opposite is happening. For the most part, consumer drone development is informing professional and commercial drone development. 
Firefighters and search-and-rescue teams are benefiting from thermal sensors integrated in an easy-to-fly drone. The sensor is attached to a drone platform designed for entry-level consumer use. This accessibility removes barriers to entry including specialty training for public safety officials.

Ultimately, successful consumer drones should be considered platforms for highly specialized professional and commercial applications. But what, exactly, are those specialized needs? Let’s examine how drones are being used in firefighting, search-and-rescue, and first-responder scenarios.

The Needs of Firefighters, First Responders, and Search-and-Rescue Teams

Even within the contexts of search-and-rescue, firefighting, and first-responder scenarios, drones are being used in a variety of ways. They’re being used at different times within an operation—and sometimes at every phase of an operation.

Pre-operation: For first responders, drone usage begins before firefighting teams are on the scene. In these scenarios, the drone’s role is to assess risks and capture an overall view of the situation. This is crucial information that can inform the strategy of a firefighting operation.

By flying over the scene and capturing footage, teams are able to locate the fire and identify the main problems they will have to face. While the video is captured for later review, these teams often employ a live feed from the drone to a phone or tablet, letting them assess the entirety of the scene in real-time. 

In most cases, the ideal drone for a pre-operation scenario is one that is capable of 3D modeling. Typically, drones do not create these models in real-time; it requires post-processing with 3D-modeling software. 3D modeling allows these teams to have up-to-date maps. Although they may have access to a 2D map, it may not be very accurate or recent.

The 3D modeling process is a post-capture process, but it’s quick: While the team is preparing for an operation, it can create a full 3D model of the scene in less than an hour. It can see where the safest entry points are, identify the riskiest parts of the scene, and then plan an operation that optimizes team safety.

During the operation: For firefighters and search-and-rescue teams, drones have become an active part of the operation itself. In search-and-rescue efforts, drones are obviously an effective way to search for missing persons. An aerial camera with a wide-angle view can cover far more ground than a land-based operation. Thermal cameras are also incredibly useful in these operations. By sensing heat, they can reveal people at night and peer through thick vegetation.

Similarly, firefighters are employing drones to search for people trapped in buildings during a fire. Again, thermal cameras are essential in these scenarios, as they can see through smoke. 
During an active operation, firefighters can also use drones for reporting and monitoring. A live feed from the drone allows the commander to have a clear view of where all the firefighters are, and it lets them assess any immediate risks in real-time. A live video feed from the drone’s cameras can be fed to an offsite tablet or smartphone, allowing team leaders to make crucial decisions from remote locations.

The ideal drone for these operational applications is a model that offers both a thermal sensor and a normal high-resolution image sensor. While a high-resolution image sensor is useful for active monitoring and reporting, the thermal sensor is crucial for seeing through thick smoke, finding missing persons in the woods or the water, and identifying the starting point of a fire. 

Post-operation: Finally, drones are also an important part of the post-operation assessment phase. Aerial photos, videos, and 3D models of the scene let firefighting and disaster-recovery teams add value and deeper analysis to their reports. These visuals help stakeholders gain a clear understanding of the damage inflicted by an incident, whether it’s a fire, a flood, or another type of natural disaster.

As is the case with pre-operation use cases, a drone with 3D-modeling capabilities is often the best fit for post-operation applications. In a flood or a fire, a drone can make it easy to measure damage in terms of square footage or meters.

Overarching Needs for Any Safety Scenario

Spanning all three of those scenarios, different users are looking for similar desired traits. First of all, a drone must be flight-ready at any given time. Because seconds can make the difference between life and death, the drone must be ready to fly as soon as it’s out of the truck.

The second overarching requirement is that the drone needs to be extremely portable. These teams need a UAV that can be carried effortlessly to any operation. In recent years, the very nature of what is considered “portable” has changed dramatically. Some of the most-advanced consumer drones now weigh around one pound. 

A lighter weight (less than 55 pounds) ensures the drone will adhere to federal and local regulations. Above the scene doesn’t mean above the law: even if the drone is being used by firefighters or law enforcement, it needs to be compliant with regulations. 

And finally, most organizations are looking for a solution that is all-inclusive and streamlined. Modularity is helpful when it comes to upgrading equipment over time, but a drone with a lot of moving parts—and a lot of interchangeable parts—also has a lot of potential points of failure. 

With that in mind, agencies and organizations need a complete solution right out of the box, one that doesn’t require buying additional components or products. From the drone to the controller to the software for processing videos, everything must be included. For any commercial use case, each solution must be complete and accessible.

What Does the Future Hold for Commercial Drones?

Before long, the natural evolution of commercial drones should eliminate the remaining barriers to adoption for public-safety organizations. The benefits of using drones in public-safety scenarios are clear: Drones increase the efficiency of response teams, they keep team members out of harm’s way, they help identify and save victims, and they help create more useful reports for every operation. 

But in order to garner greater adoption, commercial drones will need to enhance their accessibility. Along with improved ease-of-use, which should spur wider adoption among commercial organizations, there are a few more growth opportunities for the commercial drone market in the coming years.

One significant factor is that prices will continue to drop. Advanced drones are often expensive, and organizations often cite price as a barrier to adoption. Just like any form of technology, prices will decrease as the technology matures, drones become a commodity, and competition in the market increases. Increasingly affordable, advanced, and accessible drones should be a catalyst for adoption.

The convergence of consumer and commercial drones will also help drive down prices. Because both ends of the spectrum will have similar form factors and easy flight controls, manufacturers won’t have to “reinvent the wheel” for every market. Instead, they will be able to build advanced and specialized capabilities on top of a single, easy-to-fly platform.

With that in mind, one should examine the consumer drone market to understand the trends that will define the commercial space in the coming years. Drones are getting smaller, lighter, smarter, cheaper, and easier to use on the consumer front, and their imaging capabilities will continue to grow. Popular consumer drones will be a foundation for future drone usage in commercial markets—and those accessible, easy-to-fly UAVs will continue to be augmented with specialized features for public-safety professionals.

About the Author

Adel Mamou is the head of product marketing for leading European drone group, Parrot. In his role, Mamou manages the complete lifecycle of Parrot drone solutions including product development, identification of strategic opportunities and potential markets, and go to market plans. Previously, Mamou supported Parrot’s business solution drones for agriculture, public safety and architecture, engineering and construction.

This article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine. 

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