Rapid population growth and the emergence of megacities have led to increased building density and the proliferation of high-rise buildings in cities globally. Ensuring the safety of human and other assets has become difficult in such “vertical” cities, especially during natural/man-made disasters. As per the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics, house fires resulted in 2,650 deaths and USD6.9 billion worth of property damage in the last five years in the United States. Cooking activities, faulty heating equipment, and electrical malfunction are some of the leading causes of house fires. The rising incidences of fire outbreaks in urban environments are creating a multitude of challenges for firefighters in implementing effective mitigation strategies. Most of the fire management techniques are intended to contain horizontal fire spread instead of vertical fire spread in high-rise buildings.
In high-rise buildings, elevators usually go offline when a fire erupts, making it challenging for firefighters to carry heavy hoses and equipment using stairs. Other factors like restricted water supplies, minimal occupant egress pathways, and excess fire spread potential may make it difficult to control disaster. Besides, traffic also plays a crucial role in delaying firefighters to reach the accident location in time, which could delay fire response, mitigation, and rescue. Innovators and authorities across the globe are employing novel robotic technologies and equipment to carry out firefighting in high-rise buildings or areas filled with intense heat and smoke.
Role of Drones in Firefighting Operations
Firefighting drones, also known as “eyes of the sky” are emerging as one of the essential firefighting tools for preventing deadly inferno occurrences, especially in and around urban centers. In the United States, more than 900 state and local agencies related to emergency services have deployed drone technology for employing them in response and recovery operations.
- Situational Awareness
Drones are effective intelligence generators that have the capability to live stream real-time aerial view to the command centre so that the firefighters know exactly what is happening rather than relying on second-hand information. This way, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide situational awareness, guide emergency response, and perform dangerous duties while ensuring the health and safety of firefighters. In dealing with a structure fire, drones can provide relevant information about the nature of fire, its entry and exit points, or where it could spread. Thus, drones can act as an ideal aerial firefighting tool to extinguish fires in high-rise buildings, which can be challenging to put out through fire nozzles or rescue ladders. Gathering this kind of information might not have been possible to conclude otherwise.
- Thermal Assessment
Equipped with thermal cameras, drones can see in the low-light conditions and detect irregularities on various infrastructure, inspect insulation on building and even identify the major hotspot in burning buildings. This feature of drones can be highly beneficial to facilitate operations during night-time or under foggy conditions, or when the smoke clouds block the vision of firefighters. Besides, a thermal camera mounted on the drone allows operators to observe and investigate extensive areas from a safe distance in large fire scenarios. The thermal sensors make detecting and rescuing people much more reliable due to the temperature differences between the people and the surroundings. Some modern drones are equipped with heterogeneous sensors such as optical and hyperspectral cameras to perform tasks such as scoping the region of event, heat source detection, victim localization, etc.
- Conduct Investigations
Using a drone to capture aerial footage while the fire is burning provides information about the current fire scenario and helps to collect first-hand information about how the fire erupted in the first place. This information retrieved via photos and videos can be archived and used for conducting an investigation. Firefighters use drones after extinguishing the fire to survey the scene, collect relevant information, and turn it into 3D maps, which serve as a record of the post-fire scene. Additionally, the aerial video footage and images help create better training material to improve the future approach for fire management or better decision-making processes. Evacuation routes can also be planned as well as preventive measures can be identified to control fire as fast as possible.
- Better Alternatives to Manned Aircrafts
For thermal and visual mapping, drones are considered better than manned aircraft as they gather data from vantage points which helicopters, or planes simply cannot. Drones can fly at a lower level than helicopters, which can help to provide a more nuanced picture of the situation. Besides, it can navigate in dangerous spaces where manned aircraft cannot reach. Sometimes, drones can be used in tandem with manned aircraft to cover rugged terrains.
- Perform Routine Investigations
Industrial fire brigades can leverage drone technology to perform routine tank inspections, which can be manually laborious and expensive. Besides, conventional routine investigation techniques might take more time and lead to safety concerns for those involved. Drones have revolutionized providing needed information about tank conditions, detecting problems, enhancing safety, and shortening downtime.
Major Developments in Drone Technology for High-Rise Building Fires
- EHang 216F
EHang introduced the world’s leading passenger drone platform, EHang 216F, equipped with AAV (Autonomous Aerial Vehicle) technology in 2020. The world’s first large-payload intelligent aerial firefighting solution has been specially designed for high-rise firefighting. The drone can carry up to 150 liters of firefighting foam and six fire extinguisher bombs, making it an impressive tool for mainstream firefighting operations. EHang 216F uses a visible light zoom camera to identify fire location quickly, hover precisely in position, and quickly use a laser aiming device to extinguish a fire with a full-range spray of firefighting foam. The drone’s centralized and autopilot management technologies shorten response time and reduce casualties. The drone can fly up to a maximum altitude of 600 meters, making it highly capable of extinguishing high-rise fire.
Aerones has developed a firefighter drone prototype that can climb 900 meters, nine times higher than a fire truck’s ladder in six minutes. The drone is powered by 28 motors and is powerful enough to carry up to 200 kilograms in weight. The drone is fitted with a water hose from a fire truck, which is managed by the pilot present on the ground. With just 90-minutes of battery charge, the drone can stay in flight mode for around 30 minutes.
Parallel Flight Technologies, a start-up company in California is designing a heavy-duty drone, Firefly, specialized in transporting heavy loads, firefighting supplies, industrial packages, and even transplant organs. Weighing around 120 pounds and standing roughly 3 feet tall, the Firefly drone resembles a small aircraft capable of holding up to 1000 pounds of gear. The autonomous workhorse can replace helicopters and other manned aircrafts, which can be of little help in low visibility environments. Firefly drones can fly from two to seven hours continuously, while most other industrial drones take only 15 minutes to an hour to the sky. Firefly’s four propellers, hybrid fuel, and electric power system can make the drone reach speeds from 60 to 100 mph. Besides, the drone can carry up to 100 pounds more than its competitors, too, over longer distances.
- The KHawk
Professors at Georgia State University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Kansas have developed a quadcopter-designed drone named KHawk under an experimental unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) program. The drone weighs around 5 pounds, measures around 3 feet by 3 feet, includes an autopilot system, thermal camera, and other specialized devices. Designed to fly autonomously with ground supervision, KHawk transmits information about the nature of fires, speed and direction of winds, and predictive data about where the flames could spread more. These drones are equipped with robust sensors that detect fire hotspots and send data to the pilot’s hand-held device, such as GPS coordinates showing the exact location of the fire’s front line and the location of firefighters. The thermal camera mounted on the drone allows one to see through the heavy smoke and prevent firefighters fall prey to any mishappening while performing their rescue operation.
Drones are rapidly becoming a standard tool for firefighting, delivering medical supplies, and surveillance during emergencies. More and more companies are venturing into drone development technologies and autonomous software development to fulfill the growing need to assist in combating high-rise building accidents and wildfires. Edge computing, artificial intelligence, and big data analytics power up drone technology and allow drones to make autonomous flights. Besides, these advanced technologies also enable organizations to deploy and control drone flight with voice commands and real-time data transfer via LTE. Certain technologies would allow drones to be programmed to alert fire or police officials in situations of emergencies, which could prove beneficial for industries operating in chemicals or hazardous operations. Governments across the globe are realizing the importance of incorporating drones in their firefighting operations, especially for high-rise buildings, and thus making investments to build novel drone technologies.
According to TechSci Research report on “Global Drones Market By Type (VTOL/Rotary, Fixed Wing, etc), By Segment (Consumer, Commercial & Military), By Application (Aerial Photography, Agriculture, Industrial Inspection, etc), By Payload, By Region, Competition Forecast & Opportunities, 2023”, the global drones market is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of more than 11% and reach a value of USD141 billion by 2023. The growth can be attributed to factors like increasing use of drones for commercial as well as military applications. Besides, growing number of innovations in drone technologies and formulation of regulatory policies for optimal utilization of drones are expected to contribute to the global drones market.
According to another TechSci Research report on “India Commercial Drones Market By Type (Fixed Wing, High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE), Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (MALE) and Others), By Payload (Less than 250 gm, 250 gm – 2 kg, 2-25kg, 25-250kg, above 250 Kg), By Application (Agriculture & Forestry, Media & Entertainment, Mapping & Monitoring and Others), By Company and By Geography, Forecast & Opportunities, 2025”, India commercial drones market is anticipated to grow at a formidable rate owing to factors such as increasing adoption of commercial drones across several applications and growing technological advancements.