Unmanned Aircraft Offer Fire Service Eye in the Sky

Soon, fire departments across the country could have an eye in the sky thanks to an emerging market of camera-equipped, unmanned aircraft -- also known as drones -- designed for the fire service.

Last week, Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment debuted the Qube at Firehouse World in San Diego.

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The Qube is a 5 1/2-pound, four-rotor drone that can be used to monitor Hazmat incidents, search and rescues and both wildland and structure fires, the company says.

Kristen Helsel, director of business development for AeroVironment's public safety division, said that while the Qube has been in development for a while, the company has only actively been selling it for the past couple of months.

AeroVironment has specialized in creating drones for the military and Helsel said the company has supplied that sector with more than 20,000 units.

"This is the business that we are in and we take it very seriously," she said.

Helsel said that the company's designers and engineers have had input from fire officials while creating the unit.

The unit is equipped with a color camera and an infrared option -- that can be used to detect hotspots -- is available.

There is currently no night-vision feature on the unit because until recently, the FAA didn't authorized night flying, but Helsel said it could become an important feature in future models.

She said that the Qube has a lot of possible applications for public safety as a whole and had a good reception by fire service members during Firehouse World.

"We got great feedback," she said. "A lot of people came by and immediately saw how they could use it. We were really pleased."

While training is required to operate the unit, Helsel said that anyone on a fire department's staff could learn how to do it.

"You usually have one person operate the system and another act as another set of eyes," she said.

Aside from training, departments also must apply for certification with the FAA in order to legally operate the unit.

Another obstacle faced by departments purchasing unmanned aircraft is the public perception of drones.

Several state legislatures, as well as with Congress, are set to consider bills this year that would limit the use of unmanned aircraft in the United States.

In early February, Charlottesville, Va., became the first city to formally pass an anti-drone resolution.

While the controversial nature of sending flying cameras into the sky has raised concern among some citizens, Helsel believes that the public can be swayed.

"We think that when people understand these products are going to save lives and property,” she said, “we think that part of the story will really change the balance for people."

Click Here for additional information about the Qube for public safety.