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For First Responders, Are Unmanned Aircraft Systems For Video Only?

By Mike Kennedy

There is no arguing that video plays an important role for responders. Police vehicles come equipped with video equipment, many new trucks for the fire service are now coming equipped with video cameras, helicopters and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) collect video of disaster scenes and many LEOs now routinely employ wearable cameras. Additionally, an April 2017 report by The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College by Dan Gettinger, found that nearly 350 local and municipal responder agencies in the United States have acquired UAS.

Gettinger did not locate agencies who equipped their UAS with anything other than a video camera (Gettinger, p.5). This begs the question: with many other payloads available that could aid the responder, why equip them only with video cameras? For some agencies, operating on very tight budgets, the answer is probably as simple as cost. Naturally, the more payloads a UAS comes with, the more the package costs. For them, it is better to employ a UAS that only collects video than to employ no UAS at all. For some departments, the answer could boil down to state or local law. As of this writing, 40 states have passed legislation that deals with UAS and in some cases, limits how UAS can be employed by public agencies1. These laws can change with each new legislative session, so always check state and local laws before embarking on the acquisition process. Here is a good resource for doing that.

While this article begins to address the question of why only use UAS for video, the bigger question remains. The obvious answer is that no, UAS are not for video only because other payloads and capabilities do exist. But as noted above, cost and the law are but two drivers defining what responders can use UAS for. Another driver is the responder mission itself. If an agency needs only the video capability to meet their mission needs and fill capability gaps, then by all means, that is what they should use UAS for. The remainder of this article highlights other payloads and capabilities in order to increase awareness of them.

Payload Capabilities for After Disaster Search-and-Rescue and Resource Management

Hyperspectral Imagers- A hyperspectral imager is capable of providing imagery that defines and distinguishes objects at a high-level of precise detail. Hyperspectral imagers collect and process information throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. In essence, hyperspectral imagers produce a set of images and collect information from each of them and combines the images resulting in a 3-D data set for processing and analysis2. Instead of seeing things in the red, green, and blue spectra of the human eye, hyperspectral imagers see them in more than one-hundred. They see things that the human eye cannot. These imagers are already routinely used on UAS for monitoring agricultural fields because the data they capture provides information about the chemical composition and the structure of an object. “Hyperspectral imaging provides an advanced remote sensing method for searching areas and automatically detecting objects of interest by virtue of their surface material characteristics (Eismann, M., Stocker, A. & Nasrabadi,N. 2015)3.

Payloads for HAZMAT

HAZMAT emergencies can come from leaks or other problems at chemical plants, truck or train accidents and from terrorist attack. Detection of the presence of HAZMAT materials on a scene allows the proper management of the scene, including the area that must be isolated and quarantined. Some payloads exist today to detect unusual and hazardous materials from a UAS. Sensors which detect hazardous materials include:

Uncommon Compound Detectors – Aretas Aerial4 offers instruments to detect Hydrochloric Acid, Hydrogen Cyanide, and Phosphine.

Radiation Detectors - Several companies offer radiation detectors for UAS that allow for the detection of beta and gamma radiation and X-rays at standoff.

It is important to remember that the UAS used to detect these chemicals and substances may also be contaminated by them. When the UAS returns to home-station it too must be properly decontaminated.

To summarize, for responders UAS are most certainly for video but not for video only. Hyperspectral imagers, uncommon compound and radiation detector payloads are available and can be considered for use with a department or agency’s UAS. When considering these as options for your department don’t forget to consider the primary drivers of cost, law, and mission.


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