Drones for mission-critical use

Drones have the potential to revolutionise public safety operations in areas such as fire and rescue. But there are regulatory and logistical barriers. By Kate O’Flaherty

The drone market is relatively new, but it is growing quickly. This rapid growth is expected to continue – Research and Markets has predicted that the global drone market will grow from $14bn in 2018 to more than $43bn in 2024.

One large area of growth is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones for mission-critical public safety applications as they become more advanced. But there are issues to be resolved. There is no single uniform approach to drones in public safety and it is difficult to implement one when each organisation uses different technology, ranging from hi-spec, consumer-grade UAVs at circa £1,000 per unit to bespoke hardware that can cost tens of thousands. Regulation is also a barrier, while some industry experts cite concerns from the public about surveillance.

Drones are very much an evolving technology, says drone pilot, trainer and industry expert Alan Perrin. But he says this means emergency services such as the police and fire departments are “having to play catch-up”, though he notes that some have been early adopters. He says in the UK, forces are often using hi-spec consumer equipment: 60 per cent of those using drones in this type of environment are using older hardware, while 40 per cent are investing in more bespoke equipment. “Bespoke equipment can cost thousands to develop, but this lower-cost equipment has a lot of functionality and it’s great,” says Perrin.

For example, some drones have 4G GPS navigation and include high-resolution cameras with zoom capability – giving first-responders the ability to track a car or person. “They can even access a 360-degree radar that stops drones from bumping into objects, which is available on UAVs costing around £1,000,” says Perrin.

Taking this into account, Eduardo Rodriguez, European enterprise product manager at DJI, says drone adoption in public safety and mission-critical applications is “quicker and at a more mature stage than any other industry vertical”. He cites US data showing that the number of agencies in the public safety sphere deploying drones soared 514 per cent from 2015 to 2018. According to an independent study from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services in 2017, 65 per cent of UK police forces had purchased at least one drone or had access to one. Two years later, this is likely to have grown significantly.

A dispatchable asset with enormous benefits
Ken Rehbehn, directing analyst, critical communications at IHS Markit, hails the drone as a “dispatchable asset with enormous benefits”. He says UAVs allow first-responders to get eyes on an incident early, especially in remote areas.

Drones usually operate on the 2.4GHz, 5.8GHz and 900MHz licence-exempt spectrum bands. “For public safety drones this needs to shift towards licensed public safety spectrum operating with LTE with priority over consumer-level traffic,” says Rehbehn. This offers advantages including additional range from operating a drone through a network of base stations deployed across a wide geography, and greater protection from interference, to enable beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations.

However, “LTE, like all mobile network technology, was deployed to support the use-case of people on the ground, not objects in the air”, says Rehbehn. He points out that in the UK, one element of the Emergency Services Network (ESN) is to provide LTE air-to-ground coverage in order to allow police and air ambulance aircraft to use the same mission-critical push-to-talk voice and high-speed data services that will be available to their ground-based counterparts.

Often, the use of drones is associated with discussions around 5G, but Rehbehn says they do not require 5G’s ultra-low-latency capabilities. In addition, “5G offers access to high-spectrum bands and that requires non-backwards-compatible changes”, Rehbehn says. “Drones are elements that will be supported by lower-frequency communications.”

Thomas Neubauer, vice-president, business development and innovation at TEOCO, agrees that 4G is sufficient for the number of drones operating at the moment. But he says 5G could offer additional reliability for mission-critical applications, due to the ability to ‘slice’ the network for certain use-cases. This could see a network slice adhering to certain criteria with a level of availability reserved for mission-critical applications – or even a slice just for drones.

“The key thing for 5G and drones is network slicing,” says Neubauer. He suggests a dedicated slice for the command and control channel just for this. “It gives you a separate communication channel including guaranteed quality of service for command and control for drones.”

There is vast potential, so where are drones being used in public safety? One company, Edgybees, offers augmented reality software to be used on drones. Adam Kaplan, CEO and co-founder, explains how the software takes geographic information system (GIS) information, such as maps and data tracking, and puts it over live video. This means if street names are obscured during a flood, for example, they can be overlaid onto the video footage to help first-responders.

Meanwhile, Perrin cites the example of drones being used by forensic collision investigators to investigate a scene without disturbing it. “They would fly the drone through the sequence of the collision to show the coroner what happened.”

They can also be used for monitoring large collections of people: drones have been used in this way to support police at the Notting Hill Carnival in the UK.

In the fire service, drones are used to help respond to house fires. “They can change from visual optic to thermal imaging,” says chief Charles Werner, a drone expert. “They flip over to the thermal image and it’s possible to see heat signatures or issues with the roof.”

The fire service is also using drones to deal with wildfires in order to enhance overall situational awareness and to improve co-ordination between groups, says Werner. He cites an app called Hangar. “It takes a 360-degree view at high resolution so you can assess the damage in a particular area. They are using GIS online, and that creates the dashboard that takes the local GIS information and overlays the view. In a house fire, they can fly and capture where apparatus is positioned.”

Meanwhile, Rehbehn cites New York’s Fire Department (FDNY), which has a seven-year-old programme that deploys tethered drones in vehicles staffed by firefighters for certain types of events, such as the latter stages of building fires. “It’s not the initial or second alarm, but one of the later levels of alarms,” Rehbehn says. “FDNY policy is to send these vehicles to the scenes and they are put in flight by launching the drone vertically up to places they think are useful observation points for command.”

According to Werner, drones are also being used by law enforcement in the US for tactical operations. In one case, the California sheriff’s team could see a house where a drug deal was taking place. “One guy threw his drugs in the bushes and changed his shirt from black to pink – the drone saw him so they were able to track him as he escaped.”

Drones are also being used in remote areas for the transfer of biological samples to hospitals, says Dr Nigel Whittle, head of medical and healthcare at Plextek. He points to an overseas company based in Indonesia. “They have a drone system to carry samples. They have navigation and control aspects and they need cameras and radars to help fly and avoid obstacles. We offer a sense-and-avoid radar system which can detect power lines. There are lots of these throughout the islands and you need to avoid them.”

Plextek’s sense-and-avoid millimetre-wave radar system operates at 60GHz. “It’s more for reconnaissance purposes – to fly around buildings, for example,” says Dr Whittle. “With a camera you might not see obstacles, but with a millimetre-wave radar you might – and it works in bad weather too.”

Drone regulation
The use-cases are increasing as technology advances. However, one major barrier to adoption is aviation regulation. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulates the use of drones. A drone used for emergency services, including those for mission-critical use, is still required to be registered with the CAA and have the necessary insurances in place. Currently in the UK, certain rules, restrictions and responsibilities apply to drone use, including ensuring that the drone is flown safely, within sight and not over a congested area, says Jacqueline Watts, director at A City Law Firm. Meanwhile, she says: “Other laws and regulations that cover the relevant emergency services will also apply to drones, as they do with other tools or pieces of equipment. For example, the police will still have to ensure that they are acting within the relevant police and surveillance powers and other legislation.”

The UK is thought to have the most advanced drone regulations, for personal or commercial use. However, the current law in England stipulates that drone operators are not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet and they must maintain visual contact with the drone at all times. In addition, recent EU legislation has imposed that member states are able to define so-called no-fly zones where – through satellite geo-location – drones will not be allowed to enter. These areas may include airports and airfields or city centres, says Watts.

It could add major headaches for the use of drones in beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations. “The rules undoubtedly currently place limitations on the scenarios in which emergency services are able to operate drones restricting their potential uses,” says Watts. “One would expect to have specific carve-outs to develop as the use of drones for emergency operations are expanded to ensure that legitimate uses for emergency operations do not place the operator in foul of the law.”

And as Watts points out, it is critical for drone operators in emergency services to be able to engage in beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations. Therefore, the current law needs to change before organisations can realise the full scope of UAVs’ potential uses. “The current legislation would preclude the possibility of the majority of search and rescue operations in which it is not possible to maintain sight of your drone due to uninhabitable landscapes or operations at sea,” says Watts.

Another (but less significant) barrier to adoption in the UK centres around new legislation set to come into force from 30 November 2019. This will stipulate that it is a legal requirement for all drone operators to register and for pilots to complete an online competency test.

But at the same time, the UK government is also consulting with manufacturers to introduce new technologies that will help ensure drones are used in accordance with the law, says Watts. This includes geo-fencing, where a drone can be automatically prevented from flying within protected areas through in-built software, which will allow the automatic identification of all airspace users, including drones.

Reporting and data use
Other than regulation, challenges to using drone technology in mission-critical scenarios also arise from the reporting processes and data use, says Rodriguez. “Many agencies are just starting to adopt their first standard operating procedures, which are adapted and improved as agencies learn from each incident and share best practices with each other,” he explains.

Once the issues are overcome, there will be multiple uses for drones in public safety. While drones start off as devices to get a better view of the situation, they become increasingly important as decision-making tools, Rodriguez says. “Real-time footage can be provided to the incident commander,” he says. But he points out that those in charge must feel comfortable with the data and have workflows in place that get the right people in the correct places to deal with the incident effectively.

The area is developing quickly, so what does the future hold? Neubauer highlights the value of edge computing. “Edge processing really kicks in when there is a large amount of data from the drone to process,” he says. “Some AI processors deployed in mobile phones today – and many new categories of processors with ultra-low power consumption – could be optimised to conduct some very clever operations already at the drone.”

This could enable the identification of obstacles, targets, or real-time rendering of possible landing areas in case of an emergency. “This is actually already happening today: it’s what delivery drones are doing to make sure that they don’t land the packages on a person laying in the sun in the garden,” says Neubauer. “It’s the same with search and rescue drones – they will do some pre-processing on the onboard AI processors.”

In the future, many experts predict the use of augmented reality, such as the software offered by Edgybees, in public safety. “This will blend the live information you get from the drone with the systems,” Neubauer says. “If you can send drone footage to your helmet, you can directly provide augmented reality pictures. And if you can make on-the-spot decisions when the live pictures arrive in your helmet, the process will become much more efficient.”

Drones will also be used for deliveries beyond consumer applications, says Neubauer. “In the public sector we see drones used for delivery – such as flying blood from one hospital to another, or even organs. Drones could replace anything that’s currently done by a helicopter.”

Werner predicts that in the future, there will be more operations without people. “I think you will see drones able to fly to high-rise buildings and extinguish fires,” he says.

The use-cases are fascinating, but there are some huge barriers to break down before drones can reach their full potential. However, it seems regulators and governments are realising this, so some big changes may be in store for us.