A firefighting drone from start to finish: flying over live flames for post-fire forensics

In the story of drones for good, the firefighting drone has a starring role. Drones are increasingly being used to support firefighters and recovery efforts worldwide — and they’re being used in increasing amounts of the entire disaster response process.

Firefighting drones are flying over live fires, while also being flown for post-fire analysis and forensics. In what was perhaps one of the most famous fires in recent history, drones were on hand at the tragic fire that engulfed Paris’s treasured Notre Dame. Both DJI Mavic Pro and Matrice M210 drones were used to track the progression of the fire, provide live video feeds to firefighting teams, and help them determine the best spots to tackle the blaze. These days, 75% of public safety agencies say they are pursuing some sort of drone program, according to the Droneresponders 2019 Spring Data Survey.

They’ve been deployed in home fires, wildfires, and in factory fires. They’re almost always better than helicopters because they’re easier to maneuver and can automatically gather real-time data to help first responders make decisions. They’re also much more cost-efficient (a number of firefighters use fairly straightforward, off-the-shelf drones that cost less than $2,000, like the DJI Phantom 4, the slightly more expensive DJI Inspire 2 with Zenmuse XT2 thermal camera, or even the accessible Mavic 2.

And now Systronics, which is a Thailand-based tech supplier that has its own team of drone pilots, shared how it used drones in a recent, devastating chemical factory explosion that claimed the life of a young firefighter and forced the evacuation of everyone within a five-mile radius.

firefighting drone Thailand Systronics
Drone teams providing aerial insights on the developing fire. Photo courtesy of Systronics and DJI.

A case study: what happened in the chemical factory fire

On July 5, 2021 at 2:50 a.m., a chemical explosion and subsequent fire rocked not just a factory, but the entire town of Racha Thewa, which is located about 20 km from Bangkok, Thailand. 50 tons of industrial chemicals caught fire, and the explosion was powerful enough to blow out the windows and doors of nearby homes — and loud enough to be heard approximately 5 km away.

The fire was huge, engulfing the actual factory as well as damaging buildings and homes as far away as a 1 km radius from the initial site. Given the enormous risk, people as far out as 5 km away were evacuated. Still, one firefighter was killed and about 60 more were injured.

Naturally city police and firefighters were involved, but that wasn’t the only disaster response team involved. They also called in support from D.R.A.T (the Disaster Response Association Thailand) and their specialist drone team led by Systronics.

Firefighting drone

During the fire

Given their aerial vantage point, drones can provide a 360-degree thermal reading of fires. During the fire, Systronics used drones to provide immediate awareness of the entire factory, providing live aerial data conveying information back to the firefighters on the ground.  With a thermal sensor, crews could see though the thick smoke and direct firefighting efforts to or away from dangerous hotspots. 

DJI Terra Mapping data DJI M300
Mapping data collected by the M300 + P1 is processed in DJI Terra. Image courtesy of DJI.

After the fire

Once the fire was extinguished, drones played a key role in essential analysis of the site and evidence collection. Drones equipped with high resolution mapping sensors can capture high-density point clouds.

That data can then be used to build sophisticated 3D models of the site using to aid detailed forensics.

The Systronics D.R.A.T pilots and their DJI M300 firefighting drone collection, from left to right with an H20T, a P1, and an L1.
The D.R.A.T pilots and their M300 firefighting drone collection, from left to right with an H20T, a P1, and an L1. Photo courtesy of Systronics and DJI.

Firefighting drone used

Systronics defaults to the roughly $14,000 DJI M300 as their firefighting drone of choice. Since the drone is capable of carrying various payloads, it works well for the multiple steps of using drones in firefighting.

During the fire, the DJI M300 is equipped with DJI’s H20T thermal camera, which allows pilots to see through the billowing smoke to identify hotspots, and then direct the actual firefighters to appropriate spots to battle the fire.

In the damage assessment part of the process, Systronics used the DJI P1 and L1 to collect mapping data. The 3D model was built in DJI Terra using the data, ultimately informing local government decision-making following the fire.

Firefighting drones are relevant in all sorts of scenarios, such as house fires and wildfires. The National Forest Service began using drones back in 2015, which has since grown to a team of more than 65 drone operators.

And while firefighting drones are certainly relevant in a myriad of scenarios, experts suggest that they’re especially valuable when it comes to chemical factory fires given the additional chemical threat they pose.

“Chemical fires are some of the worse threats firefighters over the world are called to deal with,” according to a prepared statement from DJI. “Not only are industrial chemicals often highly flammable, they can also be highly toxic threatening emergency personnel and nearby residents with further dangers if not extinguished quickly. What’s more, chemical factory compounds often house multiple stores of different hazardous materials placing even greater urgency on crews to bring flames under control as rapidly as possible.”

Interested in learning more about drones for emergency response? Consider checking out the F1RST UAS Symposium, set for June 1 and 2, 2022 in Pasco County, Florida.

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