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RPAS pilot Leading Firefighter Peter Loenen conducts a mission during the northeast Victoria flood event.

MFB pioneering the use of Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems by fire services

Since 2010 Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) has been developing the use of low altitude Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in a range of scenarios. With MFB’s second generation of RPAS now fully operational, it has been a journey that has developed new territory for fire and emergency services.

Beginning the journey

In 2010 the MFB procured two CyberQuad low altitude quad rotor unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) incorporating a high definition camera in one, with the other carrying a combination standard definition camera and thermal imaging camera. The rationale for beginning to develop a UAV capability was to minimise the exposure of firefighters to hazardous environments, and to provide Incident Management Teams with real-time aerial vision to aid situational awareness and decision making. Historically, emergency services have had a near total reliance on voice communications and the move to bring in visual assistance is a natural evolution in emergency communications.

This relatively small investment in an emerging technology precipitated a journey that continues today.

As the first fire and emergency service in Australia, and amongst the first in the world to trial the use of compact UAV in urban operations, MFB needed to develop expertise from the ground up, and the next four years was a steep learning curve providing unforeseen challenges as well as benefits. Key early challenges for the then MFB UAV project were:

  • Establishing the trust of internal and external stakeholders in the value of UAV
  • CASA regulations, including obtaining an Operators Certificate,
  • Pilot accidents and damage to UAVs in the early training days
  • Training firefighters as pilots, rather than outsourcing the work.

Prior to beginning a formal trial, MFB sought approval from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority Australia (CASA) to operate the UAV. Although CASA had regulations in place, they were minimal and there were not yet regulations relevant to the operational requirements of emergency services. MFB and CASA worked closely to update regulations to enable rapid deployment of UAVs for emergency use. With the MFB UAV project gaining media attention through the early trial period, it was recognized by most in the industry, including CASA that these “good news stories” could only help the fledgling industry and assisted in providing a more positive light to the benefits of UAV/ drones.

Similarly, there was no license specifically for UAV pilots. MFB took a leading role working with CASA to develop a modern license specifically for pilots called the Remote Pilot’s Certificate. MFB now has two CASA approved trainers to deliver this syllabus and is the only emergency service in Australia with the capability to deliver in-house training to qualify personnel as unmanned aerial system pilots for emergency situations.

Vision of fire damage at the historic Moonee Ponds Courthouse used for fire investigation.

Vision of fire damage at the historic Moonee Ponds Courthouse used for fire investigation.

Over the next two years MFB trained a group of pilots and developed a concept of operations to enable rapid deployment of UAV to incidents. In December 2012 the first deployment of a UAV to a live incident occurred and provided an early indication of its usefulness. The incident involved a fire burning within a large pile of scrap metal. In the words of the Incident Controller: “The UAV with thermal imaging camera allowed the identification of deep seated hotspots through significant smoke. The MFB Teleboom was directed under advice from the pilot allowing the teleboom operator to directly attack the seat of the fire. Consequently, risk to the community from harmful products of combustion was reduced in a far more timely way.” Once the fire was substantially brought under control a dynamic risk assessment determined that it was too dangerous for crews to use handheld thermal imaging cameras to search for hotspots. The UAV was therefore deployed again to provide further intelligence to the Incident Controller.

Subsequently, a formal trial of the UAVs commenced and data and feedback from every incident attended by the UAVs was documented. During the trial period the aircraft worked at a wide range of incidents including structure fires, non-structure fires, and to assist other emergency services, including CFA and Police. The UAVs were deployed extensively at the Hazelwood Coal Mine fire to provide situational awareness and to undertake progress mapping for planning purposes. Footage was also used at incident debriefs, drills and exercises.

During the trial period the UAVs were most commonly being requested by MFB’s Fire Investigation and Analysis Unit to gather vision and other evidence for fire investigation and coronial purposes. This use was not originally contemplated, but it enables fire investigators to gather footage remotely, minimising firefighter exposure to potentially unsafe environments while also providing an aerial overview of a fire scene that was previously unavailable.

The trial concluded in August 2014, recommending that the UAVs be incorporated into the MFB’s normal operations, and that the UAVs be considered as a state-wide resource that form part of the State’s air capabilities available to other emergency services.

The second generation – Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems

In 2016 the MFB invested in the next generation of aircraft, now renamed RPAS, Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems. The MFB procured five DJI Inspire 1 aircraft for operational use. Four are equipped with high resolution optical cameras and thermal imaging technology and can also take stills of a scene and stream aerial views to remote locations, such as an incident control centre (ICC) to assist with response and planning. One aircraft is equipped with an ultra-high definition optical camera only, specifically for use by the Fire Investigation and Analysis Unit.

The new generation RPAS ensure MFB is equipped with the latest technology which enhances our capability to respond to and learn from emergency incidents. The cameras are mounted on a three-axis gimbal and are capable of providing unobstructed 360 degree vision in high definition. MFB is exploring how other features of the DJI Inspire 1 can be harnessed, including vision positioning capability to enable indoor flight, ability to generate 3D maps and 3D images, and accurate distance and volume measurement capabilities.

RPAS have now been deployed more than 100 times across a diverse range of incidents including structure and non-structure fires and hazardous materials incidents. The aircraft are in high demand by MFB’s emergency service partners and have been used to assist Victoria Police in a range of scenarios including road crash investigations and recording of evidence at crime scenes.

In October 2016 RPAS were deployed to the northeast Victoria flood event and carried out missions around Shepparton and Wodonga. In particular, aircraft were used to provide detailed regular monitoring of a sand quarry levy which was at risk of collapse due to the pressure of flood waters. The RPAS data was utilised by the ICC and geological technicians over several days to monitor the levy and assess the likelihood of collapse. Additionally RPAS were deployed to assist with damage assessment to gain an overview of areas that were not accessible from the ground due to floodwaters.

RPAS vision used to assist in monitoring levy bank stability during the northeast Victoria flood event.

RPAS vision used to assist in monitoring levy bank stability during the northeast Victoria flood event.

The journey continues

The major function of the new generation RPAS remains to minimise exposure of firefighters to hazardous environments, and to provide IMTs with real-time aerial vision to aid situational awareness and decision making. As the technology rapidly advances the RPAS and associated software and hardware will enable fire and emergency services to do this in increasingly complex and diverse ways.

The MFB has partnered with major research facilities in Melbourne. Researchers and students working in the aviation engineering field work with the MFB to look at future technologies in the industry and their potential application in the emergency services sector. Projects currently in progress include:

  • Air monitoring capability
  • Firefighter search and locate capability that will identify firefighters and equipment on the ground through GPS tracking and also be able to search for individual signatures
  • Collision avoidance systems both exterior and interior
  • Live streaming

Hazardous incident response is a likely area for future growth as advances in camera technology beyond ultra-high definition (4K) will enable the use of RPAS to zoom in on small objects such as hazmat labels or hard to access areas from a safe distance. Atmospheric monitor including visualisation of plumes and the development of detecting equipment for RPAS is another area that MFB is actively investigating.

Other future applications include urban search and rescue, such as building collapse scenarios where indoor autonomous flight could enable 3D mapping of collapsed structures, and marine deployments where RPAS could be used to make an initial assessment in ship fire scenarios.

The MFB has made great progress in its RPAS journey so far, but significant challenges remain.

Refining the current deployment model to ensure that RPAS and pilots are available for rapid deployment on a 24/7 basis remains a work in progress with the UAV team testing a range of deployment options to ensure that RPAS are available when and where they are most needed. Pilot training and skills maintenance in particular is a big challenge. Our pilots need regular practice flying in a range of conditions and conducting diverse tasks to ensure that they have the skills and confidence to conduct aerial operations in situations that are often complex, challenging and time constrained.

MFB’s journey to date has begun to make real the immense potential of remote piloted aerial systems to improve firefighter safety and situational awareness. MFB remains committed to continuing to lead the way in the development RPAS for fire and emergency services in Australia and beyond.

For more information, go to www.mfb.vic.gov.au

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Will Glenn joined the MFB in 1984 and has worked in various Operational Districts over a 33 year period. Currently Will is the relieving Commander on A Platoon, Operations. Will initiated the MFB UAV project in 2009 and managed the project until 2016.