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7 Ways Fire Departments Use Drones in the Field

Across the U.S., and throughout the world, drones are being used more and more in firefighting operations.

And with good reason. Drones can help firefighters collect vital information about ongoing fires, which helps them focus their efforts on where their help is most needed, keep them from harm’s way, and save lives.

Here are seven different ways fire departments are using drones in their operations right now.

1. Assess Risk and Danger

Drones support firefighting operations by providing an overhead view of the scene of the fire, which gives firefighters real time information about how a fire is unfolding.

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When dealing with wildfires, drones can help firefighters understand how the fire is spreading and where it might go next.

In dealing with a structure fire, drones can provide key information about exits and entry points, as well as revealing information about the nature of the fire that might not otherwise be possible to gather.

Also, when a fire is starting to die out, it can still contain smoldering hot spots that are invisible to the naked eye, and a thermal camera attached to a drone can help firefighters find these spots and make sure to avoid them.

2. Respond to Disasters

Firefighters don’t only fight fires.

UAVs can give firefighters a quick, safe way to capture information related to catastrophic events like floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes.

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This early information helps incident commanders and emergency managers understand the magnitude of community impact on building infrastructure, road conditions, and living conditions, and this information can help in determining what additional resources might be needed from FEMA, neighboring communities, or other organizations.

The data drones collect during disasters can also help find people trapped in their homes or vehicles, and divert rescue efforts to help them.

3. Save Lives

Using thermal cameras, firefighters can find people who might be trapped on an upper level of a building, or in a wildfire, and focus their efforts on saving them.


Even without thermal, the ability to see into windows and gain real time information on the situation within a burning building, or within a wildfire, can provide crucial information to firefighters to help them save lives.

4. Make Emergency Deliveries

Firefighters are also using drones to make emergency deliveries in disaster situations, carrying items like Automated External Defibrillators (or AEDs), and whatever other equipment might be needed on the ground.

I think that the fire service is really at the forefront in package delivery. During [the] 2015 flood, we used drones to deliver body bags, AEDs and a host of other equipment that our drones were capable of carrying.

–  Gene Robinson, Experienced Search & Rescue UAV Pilot

5. Create Pre-Fire Plans

Situational awareness is everything when it comes to saving lives and preventing damage during a fire, and half the battle is knowing what you’re walking into.

That’s why firefighters have been using drones to capture images and create orthomosaic maps of key buildings and facilities, like schools, within the areas where they work.

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These maps help firefighters to know where the exits are, and can be used by the incident commander during a fire to provide a comparison between normal conditions and fire conditions for different parts of a building.

6. Conduct Investigations

Using a drone to capture aerial footage while a fire is burning can provide a twofold value—one, the situational awareness of what is currently happening on the scene; and two, the collection of first-hand information about how the fire burned while it was active.

This information, collected in photos and videos, can be archived and used for investigations into how the fire may have taken place.

Firefighters are also using drones after a fire has burned out to survey the scene and collect images that can be turned into orthomosaic maps. These maps serve as a record of the post-fire scene, so that even if the scene changes over time there is still a complete data set that can be used to investigate what might have caused the fire, and how it burned while it was active.

7. Create Training Materials

The aerial video footage and images captured while a fire is burning can be crucial in after-action assessments, in which firefighters critique their own efforts so that they can improve their approach and identify future training needs.

These materials can also be used to train new firefighters, providing real life examples of how a fire might unfold, and where decisions on the ground were made well or could have been made better.

Want to learn how the Los Angeles Fire Department built their drone program? Read about their step-by-step process here.

The post 7 Ways Fire Departments Use Drones in the Field appeared first on UAV Coach.

DJI’s Phantom 4 V2.0 and RTK Controllers, ZenMuse XT2, and Skyport Adapter

Never one to slow down, DJI has announced a few big releases recently, and there has also been some buzz about two upcoming controller releases for the Phantom 4.

Let’s start with the buzz, and then take a look at the releases.

New Phantom 4 and RTK Controllers

We’re calling this news buzz because some of it hasn’t yet been substantiated. According to recent reports, DJI has received approval from the FCC for what seem to be two new Phantom 4 controllers—a V2.0 and an RTK controller.


The FCC filing that is purportedly for the V2.0 controller mentions a PH4-5870mAh–15.2A battery, which is the same battery used in the Phantom 4—thus the speculation that the new FCC approval is for a Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 controller.

However, some are speculating that this filing could be for a Phantom 5 controller instead, which would certainly be big news. The Phantom 4 Pro was released April 30, 2017, so it wouldn’t be crazy to think that a Phantom 5 release might be just around the corner.

Unlike the buzz about the new Phantom 4 or Phantom 5 controller, news about the Phantom 4 RTK controller—the second controller for which there is an FCC filing—isn’t speculative. DJI has acknowledged the creation—and subsequent FCC approval—of the Phantom 4 RTK.

RTK stands for Real-Time Kinematic. This new version of the Phantom 4 can create highly accurate maps—up to 2 inches / 5 centimeters of accuracy—using GNSS satellite positioning. (To put this in perspective, many drones only offer accuracy of up to about 16.4 feet / 5 meters, making RTK much more accurate by comparison.)

The RTK drone can be used to accurately map assets in industrial settings, including mapping for stockpiles, construction sites, or buildings. It’s clearly aimed for use in the commercial market, which is of course where we’re seeing a lot of growth in the drone industry lately.

DJI requested a 45-day secrecy cycle for both of these FCC filings, so we should expect to start seeing some official releases before too long.

The ZenMuse XT2 and the Skyport Adapter

The ZenMuse XT2

Both of DJI’s new releases are also aimed directly at the commercial drone market.

The ZenMuse XT2 is a dual vision thermal camera that was released recently at the headquarters of the Menlo Park Fire Department in Menlo Park, CA.


The ZenMuse XT2 combines both thermal and visual sensors.

The visual camera comes with 4K video and 12mp stills from its 1/1.7” CMOS sensor, and both the visual and thermal camera can record and stream at the same time.


Having this combination of cameras allows firefighters and others to compare a live feed with a thermal one in real time, and make crucial tactical decisions on how to respond to a fire as it unfolds.

It also promises to be useful for thermal inspections, since drone pilots can now see what they’re looking at through the visual camera, as well as doing the thermal inspection through the thermal camera.


A Rendering of the ZenMuse XT2 in Action

The XT2 was created in partnership with FLIR, and can be mounted on any of DJI’s M200 Series and the M600 Pro.

The ZenMuse XT2 continues our longstanding partnership with FLIR to create the most powerful thermal imaging solution available on a drone today. This is a significant advancement for public safety professionals who are using drones to save lives.

–  Jan Gasparic, Head of Enterprise Partnerships at DJI

The Skyport Adapter

In another release aimed at the commercial sector, DJI recently launched the SDK and Skyport Adapter, which will allow third party cameras, sensors, and other payloads to be mounted and integrated with DJI M200 drones.



This release essentially creates an open platform on which any developer can work to address the specific needs of a company in a given industry, and helps give DJI yet another competitive advantage by allowing their drones to have the flexibility to address various new scenarios, without investing in creating specific drones for every single niche application that arises.

Our new Payload SDK makes it possible for any manufacturer to create a payload specific to their customers’ needs that will work seamlessly with DJI’s aircraft.

–  Jan Gasparic, Head of Enterprise Partnerships at DJI

At the end of March, DJI announced their biggest single order of drones yet: an order of 1,000 M100s for the Japanese construction company Komatsu. These drones were being sold in partnership with SkyCatch, a U.S.-based company that will customize the M100 before delivery.

With the release of the Skyport, it seems like we can only expect to see more of these partnerships and customizations, with DJI providing the initial hardware, and other companies customizing that hardware to fit specific customer needs.

The post DJI’s Phantom 4 V2.0 and RTK Controllers, ZenMuse XT2, and Skyport Adapter appeared first on UAV Coach.

How Can Drone Pilots Fly within Five Miles of an Airport?

In the U.S., drone operations are often not generally allowed within five miles of an airport, and this can be the source of a lot frustration for some drone pilots.

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For instance, if you’re flying in your own backyard as a hobbyist and you only plan to go ten feet in the air, why do you need to notify Air Traffic Control? Or if you’re flying a real estate mission four miles away from an airport, and don’t plan to fly much higher than the house you’re photographing, why do you need to go through the potentially lengthy process of securing airspace authorization?

If you’re a hobbyist, this scenario certainly does seem frustrating, but we’d recommend doing everything you can to be compliant. Right now there is an ongoing debate on whether hobbyists should be more strongly regulated, and given the relative lenience of existing regulations it seems like a good idea to comply, even if you’re just flying at your house.

And for commercial drone pilots, the FAA is working to speed up the process for airspace authorizations by rolling out instant airspace authorizations via LAANC throughout the U.S., so hopefully things should be much quicker within the next year.

So How Can Drone Pilots Fly Legally within Five Miles of an airport?

The first thing to clarify is that there are two different classes of rules in place for flying drones. One set of rules applies to hobbyist drone pilots, and another set of rules—the FAA’s Part 107 rules—applies to commercial drone pilots.

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A hobbyist is someone who’s flying a drone just for fun, and a commercial drone pilot is someone flying for work or business purposes.

How Hobbyist Drone Pilots Can Fly within Five Miles of an Airport

As a hobbyist, the FAA’s guidelines read that you must, “Provide prior notification to the airport and air traffic control tower, if one is present, when flying within 5 miles of an airport.”

That’s it. You don’t need to submit any paperwork or wait for official approval from the FAA. So long as you contact the airport and air traffic control tower, you can fly within five miles of an airport.

But how exactly are you supposed to notify the airport and the control tower?

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We know of two ways. One, you can call. Or two, you can use an app like AirMap to notify the airport digitally.

If you do decide to use an app instead of making a phone call, we recommend that you do your homework and confirm that the app is notifying both the airport and the tower—the information we’ve found indicates that the AirMap app notifies the airport manager, but it’s unclear whether the requirement to notify the tower is covered through that notification. Just something to look into, since the responsibility to provide those notifications is ultimately yours.

On the other hand, if you decide to call, this page on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) website will allow you to search for the phone number of any airport in the U.S.

If you’re going the route of calling to notify the airport, keep in mind that you also need to call the air traffic control tower.

Air traffic control tower phone numbers aren’t usually available to the public, so you’ll probably need to contact the airport manager and ask, 1) If there is a control tower, and 2) What the phone number is.

This is something you can ask for when you make your first phone call to the airport.

How Commercial Drone Pilots Can Fly within Five Miles of an Airport

On the other hand, if you’re operating as a commercial drone pilot and you want to fly within five miles of an airport, you may need to secure airspace authorization from the FAA.

We say “may” because it’s not always the case that the five miles of airspace surrounding an airport is controlled.

So the first thing to do if you’re a commercial drone pilot who wants to fly within five miles of an airport is to identify the class of airspace where you’d like to fly—there are hundreds of airports that exist in Class G uncontrolled airspace, so it’s important to do your research.

If you discover that the airspace where you want to fly is controlled, then you’ll need to secure airspace authorization to fly there.

There are two ways to receive airspace authorization. The first way, which could take up to 90 days but is available for all controlled airspace within five miles of any airport in the U.S., is to go to the FAADroneZone and submit an application.

Check out our step-by-step guide for help with the airspace authorization application process, and filling out the form on the DroneZone site.

The second way to get airspace authorization is to use a platform like AirMap or Skyward, which will allow you to get instant airspace authorization through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC for short.

The only catch is that these instant authorizations are still being rolled out, and are currently only available in a handful of locations—you can find the list of places that currently have instant airspace authorization available here.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that even in Class G airspace, you’re not allowed to impede or interfere with any existing manned aircraft operations.

So even if you might have an airspace authorization that allows you to fly very close to an airport, or you might be a hobbyist who feels like you’ve done your duty and notified the airport, you still need to make sure to use common sense and stay out of the way of all manned aircraft.

The post How Can Drone Pilots Fly within Five Miles of an Airport? appeared first on UAV Coach.

Mapping Big Projects Over Time: An Interview with Drone Pilot Jason Singleton

Recently we met commercial drone pilot Jason Singleton, who has over ten years of experience creating maps using GIS (Geographic Information System) data collected by drones and other means for private and governmental clients.

Right now Jason is working to map a big project for the city of Kalispell in northwest Montana. The project is a revitalization of a local park called Glacier Rail Park, and Jason has been documenting the progress of the city’s work using orthomosaic maps.

We sat down with Jason to learn more about the work he’s doing for the city of Kalispell, and how he is inputting maps made on different dates to show progress.

[By the way, to orient you as we talk through the Kalispell project, here is a link to a webpage featuring the maps Jason has been creating for the city, hosted on ArcGIS. All screenshots featured below come from this page.]

Begin Interview

What kind of work do you do with drones?

I’ve been working in GIS—Geographic Information Systems—for a long time, which essentially means mapping. I do this work through my business, GeoControl LLC.

All of my mapping is web-based, which means I can share the maps I make with anyone, anywhere, using a link to the hosted map.

Tell us about the Kalispell project. What are you doing, and how are maps being used?

In 2015 the city of Kalispell, Montana got a TIGER Grant, which provided the city with a lump sum of money to upgrade the downtown and help make improvements that would help the local economy.

The grant has primarily been put into a project to relocate a huge grain elevator to a new location in the Glacier Industrial Rail Park, to take out the railroad tracks that are currently there, put in walking and bike paths, and also open the area to new real estate opportunities. Basically, it’s a full revitalization of the entire downtown area. It’s a huge opportunity for the town, and a really positive thing.

The mapping project I’m working on was created by me and a few other people here in town. The idea was to offer transparency to the people living in Kalispell on how the project is progressing, and where the TIGER funds are being spent by creating maps of the site over time with data collected via drone.

We now have orthomosaic maps of the work site that show how it has developed over time, since the project began. Our goal at this point is to create a map every month, and in some instances twice a month, depending on how much progress there is to document at the site in a given period of time.

The project will take a few years to complete, and when we’re done the city will have a historic document of how it was completed.

[What is an orthomosaic map? An orthomosaic map is a detailed, accurate photo representation of an area, created out of many photos that have been stitched together and geometrically corrected (“orthorectified”) so that it is as accurate as a map.]

A Map of the Work Site Hosted on ArcGIS

How do these maps work, and what kind of information do they contain?

We’ve created 3D maps at various dates, which can be viewed on the Glacier Rail Park website—you can scroll down to see a list of DroneDeploy links, located to the right of the video embedded on the page.

We’ve also created a layered map hosted on ArcGIS, which can be viewed here.

The layered map shows changes to the site over time—if you go to the map and click the layers icon (shown in the image below), you can see all of the maps we’ve created of the site as layers.


What’s great is that all of the stakeholders can view these maps, including personnel from construction companies, engineers, and the public. Engineers can even download the point cloud data and use it to create models instead of sending out surveyors in person.


In addition to showing progress over time, the layered map hosted on ArcGIS has several other features that help share information.

One feature is that you can send someone a link directly to a part of the map, so that you can show them exactly what you’re talking about. For example, here is a link to a zoomed-in portion of the ArcGIS map.

A Zoomed-In Portion of the ArcGIS Map of the Kalispell Work Site

You can also leave notes on these maps, so that you can share information with anyone who needs to know. These notes on the ArcGIS map are indicated by small yellow circles:


Basically, the ArcGIS is both a dynamic, working document of the site, and also a historic document, providing insight into how the site has changed over time. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for sharing information, and for providing transparency to those who simply want to know how things are progressing.

What is your process for creating one of these layered, interactive maps hosted on ArcGIS?

First I start with DroneDeploy, and create a flight plan.

A Flight Plan in DroneDeploy

Then I fly the mission, collect the data, and have DroneDeploy generate an orthomosaic map.

After the orthomosaic map has been generated in DroneDeploy, you have the option to generate an ArcGIS web tile layer.

[A web tile layer is just a way of adding a layer to your ArcGIS hosted map, like the layers shown earlier in this interview.]

When you click the button to generate a web tile layer in DroneDeploy, you get a very long URL.

ArcGIS Web Tile Layer Generated by DroneDeploy

After generating the web tile layer, you go to your ArcGIS site where you are hosting your map, and use that URL in the ArcGIS Online Web Tile Layer app to add the layer to an existing map, or to create a new map if you don’t have an existing one.


Using this app you can add layers to an existing map, just like we have on the ArcGIS hosted map, so that you can show progress on a project over time. This is perfect for the work we’re documenting in Kalispell, but it could also be used in all kinds of other scenarios.

For example, let’s say you had a contract with a farm to fly a mission over every three months for five years. You could create these mapping layers not just with the imagery—that is, not just with orthomosaic layers—but also with NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), which is what farmers use to monitor their crops. These maps would help the farmer monitor the health of his crops, and they can be overlaid to show changes over time so that the farmer can click from one to the other to see what things looked like say, one year ago, or three months ago, and so on.

What software do you use, and how do you use it?

For GIS, I use ArcMap, which is the main product from E.S.R.I.

To create my orthomosaic map layers I use DroneDeploy, and then bring those images into ArcGIS Online, which hosts the actual map so that you can have a link to share with people.

I also use the ArcGIS Online Web Tile Layer app to help layer in maps.

[Want to learn more about drone mapping software? Check out our introductory guide here.]

What other kinds of projects have you done with drone mapping?

I’ve done web mapping for hiking trails, as well as some work in real estate.

I love the idea of doing vegetation analysis over time, and I’m hoping to create maps that can be used to monitor orchards or vineyards, which could help farmers find opportunities to improve their yields.

What drones do you fly, and how much battery life do you need for most missions?

I fly a Phantom 4 Pro, and I use an iPad to fly it. Most missions I fly are under 30 minutes and take just one battery, but I like to have a second battery on hand as a backup.

What do you need to do this kind of mapping work?

You have to have the GIS background, and you have to know how to use ArcGIS Online.

ArcGIS costs about $1,500 a year, which gives you the license and the ability to host maps online.

These are skills you can pick up. They take time and dedication to learn, and the field is always changing, but it’s something you can do if you decide to put in the work.

The post Mapping Big Projects Over Time: An Interview with Drone Pilot Jason Singleton appeared first on UAV Coach.

What Is UTM, and Why Should You Care About It?

UTM stands for Unmanned Traffic Management, and refers to systems created to manage drone traffic.

A good way to look at UTM is that it’s a system designed to keep drones and other types of aircraft from colliding.

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Currently, there are a few products on the market that address UTM needs, but the truth is that we’re still in early stages when it comes to having a fully functional UTM, or UTMs, in place.

This means that when people use the phrase UTM they’re just as likely to be talking about the concept of managing drone traffic as they are to be referring to an actual product or existing system that will help you do it.

Why You Should You Care about UTM

If you’re a commercial drone pilot, the reason you should care about UTM is because it’s crucial to integrating drones into the national airspace, and has the potential to make flying beyond visual line of sight, or BVLOS, in commercial drone operations a reality.

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Drone operations that would benefit from being allowed to conduct BVLOS flights include drone deliveries, search and rescue missions, precision agriculture, and railroad inspections.

As you probably know, BVLOS flying is currently prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules pertaining to the use of small unmanned aerial systems. But if UTM were to become a reality, it could clear a path for regular operations that would use BVLOS, because drones could fly beyond the line of sight without the fear of them colliding with other manned or unmanned aircraft.

Here’s an example, to make this more concrete.

Imagine a delivery drone is flying a pre-programmed route, and its path happens to cross that of a helicopter medevaccing someone out of an area.

With a functioning Unmanned Traffic Management system in place, the drone and the helicopter could communicate automatically and avoid a collision.

Alternately, a drone delivery corridor could be pre-established, and the helicopter would know to avoid that corridor, again using information shared via UTM.


NASA currently has a UTM research program in place, where they’re working to create the architecture of a UTM system that would oversee manned and unmanned aircraft operations in the U.S.

NASA’s development of UTM has been tracked by tiered Technical Capability Level (TCL) demonstrations, which have grown increasingly more complex as they move forward. And they’re making good progress. NASA has already completed demonstrations for levels 1 and 2, and last month they completed level 3.

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The reason these demonstrations matter is because they indicate real forward progress with NASA’s development of UTM—once they complete
TCL 4 they’re supposed to be transitioning their UTM program to the FAA.

The original UTM timeline called for NASA to complete their transition to the FAA in 2019, but this has been sped up due to pressures from the drone industry, and NASA has already started working with the FAA.

But the drone industry isn’t just waiting for NASA to deliver. Private companies have been creating their own UTM-focused products, and implementing UTM concepts.

Most likely, when UTM arrives, there won’t be one national UTM system. Instead, we’ll probably have different products and systems in place throughout the country, sharing operations and data with each other in partnership with the systems already in place at U.S. airports.

And this will be a great thing for the drone industry because it will mean real solutions to challenges we currently face for rolling out BVLOS on scale. It will certainly be interesting to see what the next few years bring here in the drone industry.

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