Drones are becoming very good firefighters in Los Angeles

Drones have been getting bad press lately, but the Los Angeles Fire Department is enthusiastic about the technology to the point where they’re looking at doubling the size of their current drone fleet.
One of the DJI Phantom drones that the Los Angeles Fire Department is using
One of the DJI Phantom drones that the Los Angeles Fire Department is using Photo: Flickr

Using drones to fight fires

Perhaps in the future, using drones for firefighting will be an option. But at the moment the Los Angeles Fire Department isn’t actually using their drones to put out fires.

Instead, they’re using trained drone pilots to use drones as an “eye in the sky” that gives them an opportunity to assess high risk situations without putting firefighters at risk. The drones are also being used in search and rescue missions.

How many drones do they have?

Well, “doubling the size of their current drone fleet” sounds impressive, but they only have 11 drones at the moment. That’s nothing when you consider the fact that they have over 250 conventional firefighting vehicles.

The Los Angeles Fire Department employs over 3,500 people and responds to nearly half a million emergency calls each year. It started using drones in April 2019.

Who flies the drones?

Drones are only as good as their pilots, so the Los Angeles Fire Department is using fully trained drone pilots rather than using unmanned drones or letting untrained firefighters fly their drones.

Richard Fields, the head of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program, says that his drone pilots are required to take an average of 80 hours of training before they get their hands on the controls of a drone.

That’s more training than most commercial drone pilots are required to undertake.

Firefighters no longer need to use helicopters to fly into hazardous zones
Firefighters no longer need to use helicopters to fly into hazardous zones Photo: Flickr

Why have drones been getting bad press?

Partly, this is because drones are being used extensively in wars. That’s not made them popular. They’re also being used by some people to deliver drugs and other contraband items into prisons. And of course, a drone attack closed Gatwick airport recently.

But the problem with the Los Angeles Fire Department’s drone initiative is the fact that it involves a partnership with DJI, a Chinese company. And Chinese technology is viewed by some people as being untrustworthy. This means that drone security is an issue.

Why is the DJI partnership an issue?

There are fears that the “eye in the sky” could actually be a “spy in the sky” and the Chinese government could be taking advantage of the drones that the Los Angeles Fire Department is using to create a Google Maps style satellite view of the USA.

In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security mentioned DJI specifically as having the potential for being able to spy on the USA and there have been restrictions on the use of DJI’s drone technology.

But the Los Angeles Fire Department claims that 90% of the data captured by its drones is saved locally and the only publicly available information is latitude and longitude. It doesn’t feel that drone security or the DJI drones are an issue.

A DJI Phantom 2 drone
A DJI Phantom 2 drone Photo: Flickr

What’s the future for technology and firefighting?

At the moment, drones cannot be used to extinguish fires. But the fact that the Los Angeles Fire Department has been using drone-based technology and wants to increase the size of their drone fleet suggests that drones will have an increasing part to play when it comes to firefighting in the future.

And it’s not just drones that can help in the end of a fire. Tesla’s technology has also been helping people on the recent Californian wildfires.

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