Anyone who remembers the introduction of thermal imaging cameras for fire brigades will recognise many parallels in the coming years. Drones started out large, complicated and extremely expensive - and experienced a boom shortly afterwards. The private world has already been conquered, while the professional sector is following suit at a rapid pace. Organisations with security tasks in particular now have the opportunity to benefit massively. Read on to find out the status quo in 2020
The most important facts in brief
The time is ripe!
First get trained, then decide!
Thermal imaging cameras with 640 pixels help with surveillance tasks and searching for people
Costs for a good fire service drone between €15,000 and €30,000
Investment in user-friendly software is worthwhile, e.g. for overlaying visual and thermal images
Is it worth considering?
Yes! Just like smartphones, drones have become exponentially more powerful in recent years. Both worlds share processors as the most important component and their development over time perfectly describes that of the drone market - greatly increased output, low energy consumption and most importantly: extremely reduced prices! This means that the days of the pioneers are definitely history and it is up to the broad masses of the fire service to decide how quickly the public can benefit from these revolutionary helpers. Sounds good - but what exactly can I expect? More on this below
What can drones do for you?
You get support in two challenging areas
getting an overview of a large area
Find people more effectively
In the overview area, we summarise the coordination of emergency services and finding the source of fires. Typical examples are operations that previously required support from manned aviation in the form of helicopters or aeroplanes. At a cost of around €2,000 per helicopter take-off (without flight), this requirement is carefully considered, but honestly: who doesn't feel better when a colleague keeps an eye on the fringes of a wildfire from the air? In times of prolonged drought, the dangers increase. Drones can help here - at low cost and at any time
In passing, it is worth mentioning rubberneckers and wilful interference with emergency services. Aerial photography can document both problems and thus contribute to combating them
Figure 1: Observation of a wildfire from the air
In addition to the visual image, thermal image live streams can be called up at the touch of a button. The display modes customised for fire brigades are a highlight. Depending on the mission objective, fire sources, maximum and average temperatures and areas with defined temperatures are highlighted. This gives you an overview of the areas in which safe entry into the burning building is possible
Orientation is usually difficult on infrared images (= thermal image). Here, too, the software provides a remedy by superimposing the visual and thermal images. The result is a thermal image with body edges
Figure 2: Thermal image with body edges, plus maximum and average temperature in a defined field
Searching for peopleis very time-consuming without suitable equipment. Aerial images not only help to coordinate the ground units, but can also contribute directly to the search. The thermal image and the visual image can both be used to quickly develop the terrain
The live image from all cameras is sent to both the pilot and the operations centre. This heralds a new era in the coordination of operations
How do drones do this?
Let's start with the most important feature: the thermal imaging camera (also known as an infrared or IR camera). With images up to 640 pixels wide, people and sources of fire can be localised with pinpoint accuracy
Figure 3: Source of fire in a hall in isothermal mode with 640 pixel IR camera
Purchase tips for the camera
The view camera should have at least 10x optical zoom . This saves energy-intensive climb and descent flights. This benefits the flight time
A higher resolution in the thermal imaging camera helps you to maintain a safe distance from the fire and still have a usable image
With a wide-angle camera, you have everything in view at the touch of a button
Radiometric camerascan also determine temperatures. Simply tap on any point in the image and the temperature is displayed
Figure 4: Temperature measurement in the image and superimposed body edges
In addition to the thermal imaging camera, selected drones also have a visual camera installed. This enables lightning-fast switching between views and a very special function: body edges can be displayed in the thermal image by superimposing the images. What's in it for me? You can identify houses and objects much better and orientate yourself more easily
So that the incident command can benefit from the images a second remote control is used. The images received can be displayed on any monitor via HDMI. Using the mobile phone network (if reception is available at the location) or setting up a local network is somewhat more complex and error-prone. The networks can be retrofitted at any time, regardless of whether the drone is purchased or not. The only requirement is that the drone is capable of streaming (e.g. all DJI drones)
I think that's good - but where to start?
Knowledge is power! That's why our recommendation is to get trained first and then go from there. We offer a two-day training programme consisting of four practical and theoretical parts. You can find out more on our training pages
As an organisation with sovereign tasks, you are largely exempt from drone flight laws. However, in your own interest, you should have a basic knowledge of how to handle drones
Once you have completed the short training course, you will need to purchase a drone with accessories. You should budget between 15,000€ and 30,000€. Compared to 3,000€ solutions, the extra cost is undoubtedly worth it. The decisive point is usually the built-in camera technology. High-quality models feature lightning-fast camera stabilisation (also known as a gimbal), 640 pixels in the thermal image and multiple optical zoom
Under what conditions can I launch my drone?
The biggest limitation for firefighting drones is the weather. The flight stability is sophisticated. Whilst experience shows that squalls are not a problem, you need to be careful when it rains, because the biggest enemy of electronics is water. That's why a firefighting drone must bewaterproof! Current models have IP45 weather protection, which also allows them to be used in the rain. This covers 95% of the weather conditions that occur in Germany. If there is heavy precipitation, the drone should not be launched
Which systems do we recommend?
Until around 2011, hand-held thermal imaging cameras were the measure of all things that were "tinkered" onto a drone. Those days are over! Today, nobody can do without a seamlessly integrated drone-camera unit. The reasons are easy to explain: camera and drone manufacturers have increasingly merged. The result is attractive, cost-effective solutions
There are several suitable drones with thermal imaging cameras on the market. The spearhead in terms of price-performance is currently the DJI M300 RTK . For a price of around 25,000€ you get high-end technology from the leading manufacturers FLIR and DJI. If you want to spend less, you have to make significant compromises in terms of functions and reliability