New drone will be valuable tool in emergency situations

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First responders hope a drone purchased jointly by the Monona Volunteer Fire Department and MFL Ambulance Service will help in emergency situations such as car accidents, fires and search and rescue. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

The compact drone comes equipped with a thermal imaging camera and regular camera that can take both photos and videos. Spotlight and loud speaker capabilities are available too.

The drone is operated by a handheld controller with built-in screen. “It’s a lot of technology crammed into that little box,” said Preston Landt, who is both a fire and EMS volunteer.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


First responders hope a drone purchased jointly by the Monona Volunteer Fire Department and MFL Ambulance Service will serve as a valuable tool in a variety of emergency situations.


Preston Landt, who volunteers with both groups, said the fire department has considered purchasing a drone for at least six months. 


“It was joint between the two because we really figured, from the search and rescue perspective, it would help both sides,” he explained.


With many drone models, features and price ranges available, Landt did a lot of research to find the best fit, even consulting with a Florida company called Drone Nerds.


“We talked about, as a department, what we wanted to be able to accomplish and narrowed down the features we wanted to get,” he said.


The compact, four-blade drone comes equipped with a thermal imaging camera and regular camera that can take both photos and videos.


“While you’re flying, you can record the whole flight if you want to, you can take individual snap shots and you can send those instantly from the controller to a cellphone or computer on scene. You can also save them to review later,” Land shared. “It even has livestreaming capabilities. If we’re on scene and have a group helping out, you can stream it to a private YouTube channel where you can send invites to people, so people who are involved can pull their phone out and see exactly what you’re seeing as long as they have internet access.”


Spotlight and loud speaker capabilities are available too. The latter will allow emergency responders to make announcements.


“Let’s say we’re doing search and rescue on the Yellow River and we found the person but no one is at them yet. We can turn the speaker on and say, ‘Hey, we see you. Just wait. Someone’s coming,’” said Landt. “From a HAZMAT situation, let’s say there’s a gas that’s dangerous but we need to see what’s going on. We can fly over and look at it, and if there are people in the area we need to get out, you can say, ‘Go that direction.’ Then we don’t have to walk through the hazardous material.”


The drone is operated by a handheld controller with built-in screen. The screen shows the thermal camera and visual camera and also has an HDMI outlet, allowing users to hook it up to a TV for multi-person viewing of a larger image.


Both the controller and drone itself have built-in memory and log each flight. The controller also contains GPS and satellite maps, and runs off the hot spot on a user’s phone.


“To fly it is really easy,” Landt quipped. “To fly it really well is a bit more difficult. The part that’s hardest is flying and trying to do smooth motions. You can make it go up and down or forward and backward and left and right, but it’s harder to go forward while going up. Also, you can move the camera up and down and side to side while you’re flying, so being able to know, as I’m going forward, this is how fast I need to move the camera down. That takes practice.”


“You just have to fly around and get used to the controls and the way it handles,” he added. “It’s amazing what I can do now compared to the first five minutes. I struggled to even get it to hover and turn, and now I can do it easily.”


Landt said the drone will largely operate on the default “positioning mode,” flying at about 35 mph but remaining steady. “Tripod mode” slows the drone to 12 mph but it runs more smoothly and doesn’t jerk the camera around. “Sport mode” is the fastest, amping up to 55 mph.


“But you have no obstacle avoidance,” Landt warned. 


In the other modes, sensors around the drone will detect objects, such as trees, while the drone is flying.


“It won’t let you fly into the tree, and will go up or around it. It also slows itself down when you get close to the ground, to land it,” Landt said.


One of Landt’s favorite features is return to home.


“If I’m out flying and it’s 1,000 yards away from me and I want it to land, just hit that button and it will automatically come and land where you took it off from. And it’s pretty close,” he said. “A lot of it’s really automated, and the obstacle avoidance makes it a lot easier.”


Some of the advanced features are more difficult to master. That includes setting up grid pattern searches of fields or other spaces.


“You can tell it to search from 200 feet in the air, I want it to take pictures that overlap 20 percent on every picture and I want to fly at 12 mph,” Land stated. “Once you have that set up, it will tell you how long the flight is going to take and how many pictures it’s going to take. If you’re good to go, just hit the play button, and the drone will fly up in the air, get on the path and follow the lines it showed you.”


“We’re probably going to have a manual that goes step by step so that, when you’re on scene and flustered, you can follow the steps and do it,” he continued. “A few hours on the sticks and you can get it down pretty good.”


Other helpful features? If emergency responders are conducting a search and rescue operation and spot an object they want to inspect more, they can touch the controller screen, placing a push pin that will tell the drone where to go. During grid searches, the user can also hit pause if he or she sees something, zoom in and inspect it, then resume the flight.


“The controller does a lot of cool stuff. I’m sure there’s more that I don’t even know about yet,” said Landt. “It’s a lot of technology crammed into that little box.”


Landt and fellow fire and EMS volunteer Nick Torkelson said these capabilities will be helpful in a variety of situations.


“If we respond to a car accident that’s a rollover out in the country, standard practice is to take a group of firemen and just walk in a line into the field and see. You don’t know if someone got thrown from a car. That’s kind of what originally got us talking about this,” noted Landt. “It would be great if we had thermal imaging, then you could fly it up and look at the scene.”


“Then we started talking about what you could do with it from a search and rescue perspective,” he added. “We have multiple times where the county will call us and say, ‘Hey, somebody’s missing and we think they’re in this field.’ Then the fire department has to go walk and see. Then there are times where they’re looking for somebody who ran, and the fire department has to walk through a cornfield, and you’re walking in the dark trying to see if you can find them.”


From a fire scene perspective, thermal imaging can show where a fire is at in a building—without firefighters having to enter the structure. Images even show through smoke.


“You can see this corner is hot, or this corner is hot. If we need to vent the roof and let some heat out, you can tell flying over that this part of the roof isn’t safe. Don’t send anybody there; they can do it from over here,” said Landt. “The only other way you would know that is you have to get up on it, and then you have to take a pike pole and start smacking it and stabbing it and hope you’re hitting hard enough to punch a hole in it. With this, you’d be able to see that.”


“We could use it for grass fires, to find hot spots,” Torkelson shared. “Then, from a law enforcement standpoint, if they ever had a big situation like an active shooter, it would give them surveillance from overhead from a safe distance.”


In the case of an active shooter or an individual running from law enforcement, Landt said the drone has a helpful follow feature. 


“When the drone flies over and finds the person, if they take off running, you can just touch them on the screen and now it will hover over them wherever they go,” he said.


Torkelson said the fire and EMS members have been excited to try out the drone.


“Once people are more comfortable with it, there will be more who want to do it,” he said. “We’ll probably get to a point where you have to log so many hours on it before you can fly it during a situation.”


Eventually, the drone will be registered with the FAA for licensed commercial use. Per those guidelines, Landt said not every operator has to be licensed, but there has to be at least one licensed individual on scene. In addition to the person flying the drone, there also has to be one observer, keeping visual line of sight to the drone at all times. The controller will help the operators avoid restricted air space.


Landt has been studying for the license, and will likely have it within the next month. The drone came with a subscription to videos and classes for others who would like to become licensed.


“To get the license, you have to understand latitude and longitude, read it in minutes and seconds and know how to convert it to decimals and find spots on maps based on that. You have to understand the different types of air space and be able to read flight charts,” Landt said. “Right now, because we are not using it in an official capacity for doing searches, it’s under recreational use. We’re doing that until people get used to it.”


Aside from Decorah, Landt said Monona’s drone is the only one in the area. A number of local departments have already reached out to learn more.


“Other than our trucks, I have a feeling it will end up being one of more commonly used tools. Everything we do, this would have a use,” he said. “Once we have the license and are officially deploying it, I wouldn’t surprised if other departments have search and rescues, we may go help them.”


“It’s to help the whole area and all different departments if they need it,” added Torkelson.

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