UAVs are very appealing to emergency service providers for many reasons, but as the City of Victoria Fire Department has discovered in setting out to establish a UAV program, there’s a lot more going on than initially meets the eye.
As a public agency in B.C., they are obligated to follow the rules, but not simply because they have to. Doing it right saves time and money and creates a program that has the strength and stability to grow in the future, though it may not look that way as you work your way forward.
The program had its start when fire chief Paul Bruce asked deputy chief Dan Atkinson to look into the potential of UAVs. The first order of business was deciding who within Victoria Fire Rescue was going to be responsible for operating and deploying the UAV if and when the need arose. Deputy chief Atkinson, master mechanic Cory Meeres along with emergency program coordinator Tanya Patterson and emergency program specialist Jowell Wong took on the responsibility.
The next step was selecting a UAV and learning how to operate it, which brought them to Indro Robotics, located on Salt Spring Island. Indro proved to be a good choice, but the team quickly learned there was a lot to learn.
Patterson recalls thinking they would come out of the initial four-day training course ready to put UAVs to work both within the fire department and the emergency program – but that wasn’t the case.
“That was just the basic first level ground school training for pilots,” she notes. “Then we worked with Indro Robotics to get ourselves fully certified (as pilots and observers), which took almost a year. Then there was selecting and purchasing the UAV, which is Transport Canada (TC) compliant. We worked with Indro to get there and to have an SFOC that’s TC compliant as well.”
Filling a Void
Philip Reece founded Indro Robotics and Remote Sensing on Salt Spring Island in 2013. With a background in commercial aviation and an entrepreneurial bent, Reece has built a company that promotes and supports UAVs across a wide spectrum of services that ranges from “we fly” to “you fly.”
Depending on the clients’ needs, Indro can do the job with their pilots and UAVs and deliver the finished product to the client in a manner that best suits the need, or as in the case with the City of Victoria Fire Department, train the clients to fly the UAVs, help them choose the most appropriate UAV and continue to support them as required.
“We do a lot of government-related work,” Reece says. “Fire departments, police, paramedics and other emergency services. With these customers, we do a slightly different program (than for a commercial client), because we know that at the end of the day, the goal is to fly beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS), especially the search and rescue (SAR) types. We have our own check pilot in house who can train people on BVLOS and we’ve built up a program that will get them operational right away. Then we continue to build their skills to the point where they could end up flying BVLOS.”
Reece explains that Indro Robotics is an aviation company and not just a UAV company. “I think that’s served us well with TC and the clients we have,” he says. “When you fly in a complex air space like Victoria, you really do have to think of yourself as an aviation company and not just a drone guy.”
Atkinson concurs with Patterson that the first four-day session with Indro was a real eye-opener.
“We came in completely green and by the time the four days were over we realized how green we were,” he said. “We’d gone over with the idea that we’d come back (to work) and be ready to roll. We were introduced to the rules and regulations, the principles of flight, weather – all the basics.”
That was Level 1 and there was still a long way to go. Patterson picks up the story and explains some of the nuances of the program.
“Indro would come over once a week for the next six months and we’d spend half a day doing classroom training and flying in local parks,” she said. “We started on the tiny, little UAVs and progressed up to the ones we have now. The ones we have now are easy to fly because everything is programmed in. The ones we started out with you can’t use an iPad. Everything is stick controlled and it’s really challenging.”
From the first small UAVs, the Victoria team worked up through their training regimen to the UAV they purchased and are currently operating – a DJI Matrice 100 modified to suit the department’s needs. It is also TC compliant. Indro supports a number of leading UAV manufacturers and while Philip Reece likes to supply clients with one of Indro’s compliant UAVs, he freely admits there are other compliant vehicles in the marketplace.
When asked if flying in public parks attracted much attention, good or bad, Atkinson laughed. “Both,” he says. “When you embark on something like this, one of the primary concerns is how it’s going to be received by the public. Privacy issues, people want to know what kind of information you are gathering and how you treat it. People want to make sure that their privacy rights are protected.”
Staff at city hall addressed privacy issues, through a privacy impact analysis to ensure the program was compliant with city policies. Insurance was another requirement handled by city hall staff. Again, there were a lot of questions to answer, but it’s one more thing done properly at the very beginning.
Taking it to the Next Level
As the UAV program progressed and training was completed, it generated a lot of attention – internally and externally. Within the City of Victoria, interest came from the police department as well as parks and engineering. For a city the size of Victoria, the UAV represented a shared resource, based on the potential value to the end-users. Once other city departments saw the UAV in operation, they quickly grasped the potential for their needs.
For the police, there was an exercise with the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team (ERT) where suspects were tracked through a wooded area. The UAV was put up overhead, looking down. Patterson was able to show the incident commander the live feed on the iPad, which was in turn linked to a TV.
“We could see the suspects and then give a description and location to the guys on the ground, which led to their apprehension,” Patterson said. “After that we were able to help with the crime scene reconstruction, taking aerial photos of the scene of a shooting.”
There was also an exercise with the local Urban Search And Rescue (USAR) team where the UAV was used to search a post-earthquake environment for victims. These local exercises caught the attention of the media, which turned it into a national news story.
“We were getting media requests from across the country,” notes Atkinson, as well as calls from fire departments nationwide. “The frustrating thing is,” he notes, “is I was hearing a lot of anecdotal stories about people operating without certification, just doing it under the principle of do it until you’re caught and then beg forgiveness.”
Refining the Learning Curve
Having reached the stage where they were fully qualified and ready to put the UAV to work, Atkinson and Patterson found themselves facing another puzzle.
“Right now, it’s in-house capacity – the ability to have an operator and visual observer ready to respond to an incident,” Atkinson said. “We only have the four certified operators in-house. From the time a call is received, from a fire perspective, to the time we would potentially be able to grab the UAV and respond, the vast majority of fire calls we respond to are over. Most are confined to room of origin and they are put out quickly. It’s pretty rare that we’re operationally firefighting and in suppression mode for more than 20-30 minutes. So, in these situations, the fire is under control before we have sufficient resources from the UAV perspective to respond in a timely fashion.”
The opportunity to deploy the UAV on a “real” fire hasn’t happened yet. Another reality check is the realization that the four trained pilot/observers also have full-time positions. Their UAV role is one of those “corner of desk” duties that have become more prevalent in the age of doing more with less. In retrospect, there have been a handful of events where the UAV could have been tested in real-life scenarios, but the operational demands of the situation took precedence.
This past June, a fire on Victoria’s waterfront would have presented a great opportunity to put the UAV to work. Fire broke out on a barge loaded with crushed automobiles and quickly sent a huge plume of dark smoke up into the sky. Initially, the fire was difficult to approach from land and the images that could have been provided by the UAV would have enabled a quicker size-up of the situation. Atkinson realizes it would have been a golden opportunity, but operational realities take priority.
Waiting for that breakout moment hasn’t stopped them in their tracks, however, as they continue to develop the UAV and work around the municipalities in the Victoria metro area to hopefully widen the base. They are also sharing the message with the community about the UAV and its potential as a community safety and security tool.
What the Future Holds
Looking ahead, the hope is that the City of Victoria can grow its program into a regional resource, with the message being that there is no need to reinvent the wheel if the resource is already available.
“Take advantage of someone who is already trained and has a program,” notes Patterson in a recent presentation to the Regional Emergency Management Advisory Council. “And call on that resource before trying to start your own program.”
Patterson’s goal for the UAV program is to ensure it an important regional resource. “We’re compliant and we’ve had some high-level discussions to ensure that other agencies know. There are currently mutual-aid agreements in the region anyway and this is something that could be used under those agreements. It’s just a matter of making sure other regional municipalities know the resource is available and could be requested.”
Indro is also working on a new DJI Matrice 200 for the City of Victoria. The new Matrice 200, includes improved weatherproofing or as Reece says, “making it as waterproof as it is possible.” The new UAV will also have dual gimbals for two payloads and a dual batter compartment for longer flight times. The new dual gimbals will allow the team to mount a FLIR camera and regular camera at the same time. The plan is to purchase a FLIR camera for the new Matrice.
Through their contract with Indro Robotics, The City of Victoria has access to a wide range of payload options that are owned by Indro, but could be made available if and when needed, including a variety of cameras and specialized equipment such as radio repeater, sound monitoring, chemical detection and more.
“A lot of people miss the point” about the value of the UAV notes Atkinson. “There are a lot of rules and bureaucracy involved because we have to ensure safety. It’s not a matter of making it difficult, it’s because of all the ‘what if’ scenarios you have to consider.”
The time and effort the City of Victoria Fire Department has put into its UAV program has given them a solid foundation to build the program outward and upward.
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