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PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE CHO

A partnership between Detroit Aircraft and the Detroit Fire Department may bring drone-assisted firefighting into the city as early as next spring, the two organizations announced today.

The groups are awaiting authorization in the next 60 days from the Federal Aviation Administration regarding their application to fly within given airspaces.

If approved, firefighters will begin training with Lockheed Martin’s Indago VTOL Quad Rotor, an unmanned aerial system that can fly for nearly an hour and carry assorted sensory payloads including an infrared (thermal) camera, which is especially important for the fire department, says Todd Sedlak, director of sales and flight operations for Detroit Aircraft, which manufactures the unmanned aerial vehicle.

“When a firefighter enters a building, he’s completely blind between smoke, steam, darkness, and everything else, so he uses a handheld thermal camera to see through the smoke and find the source of the fire,” Sedlak says. “By using a thermal camera aerially, we are able to rapidly do what’s called a ‘size up,’ which is where you look at the fire and determine the appropriate resources you need to use.

“We can see if the fire is spreading, if anyone is in danger, if people are on the roof, if the roof is about to collapse,” says Sedlak. “And by using the UAV and the sensory payloads that complement the system, we can gather all of the information in just seconds.”

Compare this to present-day techniques, where it may take a fire department up to 15 minutes to get a ladder to the top of a building, and a firefighter must beat the roof with an axe or another piece of equipment to determine the structural integrity of the roof and whether it has been compromised. “A UAV allows us to get up there, see the big picture, deploy the resources that we have very effectively, and get that fire out fast,” Sedlak says.

Before the fire department can move forward using the drones in its daily operations, they must train in an FAA-approved space, one that is unpopulated and non-dangerous to fly.

“Normally, you’d have to practice on a wide-open field,” says Sedlak. “But one of the pros — if you will — of the large number of abandoned buildings in Detroit is that it allows us to simultaneously fly over unpopulated areas while also using structures that the fire department would be training on.”

Once the FAA is satisfied with Detroit’s procedures, the organization can submit for an operational certificate, allowing firefighters to use the UAV to assist with remediating an average of 27 structural fires a day, Sedlak says.

Ultimately, the technology will position Detroit as a national leader in the integration of unmanned aerial systems in urban firefighting and first response needs. “As we deploy, we’re going to make sure everything is done safely and correctly,” Sedlak says. “Our mission is to assist firefighters and first responders to do their job more effectively and keep them out of harm’s way.”

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