newdaveThe announcement that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service are to test the viability of airborne drones to provide an aerial view over areas affected by flooding or gorse fires shows a new application for what is becoming an established technology. FIRE security expert Dr Dave Sloggett explores what other applications may also arise:

The word drones brings a range of stereotypical images to mind. Whilst they come in a great variety of forms and serve a range of applications the single misnomer that exists in many people's minds is that they are somehow autonomous, devoid of any human input.

That character of drones clearly arises from their depiction by Hollywood in a range of films that take what is achievable with today's technology with a serious dose of artists licence to create drones that have human thinking and reasoning abilities. That kind of drone is something for the future. The idea of a robot fireman going into a burning building and pulling out a casualty to safety is still some way off.

For those who look at the word drones through the lens of the security the images of Predator and Reaper drones providing the platform to launch missiles at suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda meetings may quickly come to mind. Since he came to office President Obama has steadily increased the use of these weapon systems to avoid the need to place soldiers on the ground to attack insurgents and terrorists in their sanctuaries in Yemen, Somalia and parts of Pakistan.

With Al Qaeda's franchises currently going through a major geographic expansion into West Africa it is unlikely to be long before reports emerge of the use of drones to attack targets in southern Algeria, Mali, Niger and possibly even Nigeria. As a weapon of war the drone has literally come of age in the last two years.

But the ability to take an aerial view is also hugely important for a range of other applications. In Northern Ireland the Fire and Rescue Service has started a trial to explore how quite simple drones might provide aerial views over large scale incidents which are geographically dispersed. Their specific focus is on gorse fires which can swiftly spread over a large area and threaten property. Having an aerial viewing platform under the control of a single operator will provide those fighting the fires with invaluable additional situational awareness.

The drones involved would carry what is a fairly basic sensor suite allowing imagery to be derived in the visual and infra-red parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Direct downlinks to a command vehicle would allow incident commanders to take in imagery that would allow them, perhaps with models of wind direction, to estimate the line of advance of the fire and to take measures to bring it under control. The drones would be flown at a variety of relatively low altitudes in the short-term to provide either a synoptic viewpoint over the whole incident or to zoom into a specific area of the fire.

The advantages of having such a capability are apparent. With such insights incident commanders can take decisions in the knowledge that rather than try and work from piecemeal ground based reporting they can get the aerial view. With a sequence of images taken over a suitable time interval the rate and direction of advance of the fire would be easy to calculate. The focus on the application of drones to monitoring gorse fires comes a year after they were a very specific problem for the Irish Fire Service.

In May 2011 large-scale fires broke out across vast areas of Eire after what had been an unprecedented dry spell. April had been the warmest on record with average temperatures 3 degrees above normal. As fires started thousands of acres were consumed across Eire. Irish Army helicopters were drafted in and fitted with 'Bambi' buckets to which are capable of dropping up to 1,200 litres of water at a time. The Irish Army also deployed 45 troops to assist the fire service as crews battled gorse fires spreading across the Muckish Mountains near Falcarragh. Given the intensity of the operation mounted south of the border it is understandable that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service should wish to have drone technology available to them.

Of course gorse fires are not the only kind of distributed target that the fire service may wish to monitor. Flooding always provides a specific set of challenges for the Fire and Rescue Services. In August across the North of England and Scotland flash flooding affected homes, industrial centres and critical parts of the infrastructure. Evacuating people from their homes is only one facet of what can be a very complex operation. Mapping the extent of the flooding can help incident commanders look at the risks through a slightly different lens and ensure they tailor the response accordingly.

Monitoring flooding and gorse fire events of course is not the limit of the areas where drone technologies may be applied. In any major incident, be that terrorist related or as a result of a man-made or natural disaster, the aerial view could prove invaluable in helping chart an effective response.

Couple this with the progressive introduction of 4G mobile telephony services and the images derived from the drones can be easily shared across the incident command structure, allowing Silver and Gold commanders accessing to the imagery. At a time when the focus on interoperability between the emergency services is high on the political agenda sharing imagery across the line of command of a single element of the emergency services as well as with colleagues will have huge benefits.