How drones might be used to respond to emergencies | March 15, 2017 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - March 15, 2017

How drones might be used to respond to emergencies

by Dave Boyce

It's been almost a year since the Menlo Park Fire Protection District received the authority from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones in responding to emergency situations. The district has four of the aerial devices and six firefighters trained to operate them, keeping them in sight as they do.

But the future beckons. Autonomous drones are being tested by the Pentagon, and the fire district has a few ideas of its own: deliveries of defibrillators to persons in need, or supplies of oxygen, or life preservers. Or helping with lighting, chemical sensing and other aspects of situational awareness, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman told the district's governing board at its Feb. 21 meeting.

On a unanimous vote, the board entered the district into a collaboration with Menlo Park-based Matternet Inc., specialists in finding applications for autonomous drones.

Matternet's website describes a collaboration with Mercedes Benz on electric delivery vans with autonomous drones mounted on the van's roof. Chief Schapelhouman told the board he could envision fire trucks equipped with drones able to take off and land on a moving truck.

The collaborative effort would include spending time with people who have ideas for useful first-responder tools that could fit in the shoe-box sized container carried by the drone, the chief told the Almanac.

"We're trying to have others develop these things in the tech world or institutional world and we would take advantage of that and test it and try it out for them, proof of concept," he said.

Board President Peter Carpenter talked of new horizons, such as the Department of Transportation equipping freeway walls with niches where a fire agency's drone could land and transmit video of traffic conditions to firefighters.

"I want this agency to be the lead agency in the United States in terms of applying new technology," he told his colleagues. "I want to do it through partnerships so the costs can be shared."

Board member Chuck Bernstein suggested that a key focus should be capabilities such as sensing imminent structural failure or hot spots or hazardous materials. "To me, that's the thing that will save lives," he said.

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