Today, much of the technology involved in public safety revolves around automobiles. If a crime is committed, a police car rushes to the scene. In the event of a fire, a fire truck is quickly dispatched. An injured person is picked up by an ambulance.
All of these vehicles run the risk of being held up by traffic. But what if all of these situations could be addressed quickly and cheaply by an unmanned aircraft that bypasses the cars on the ground?
In fact, such drones are already being used by emergency services, as delegates heard at a conference organized by the European Emergency Number Association in Dubrovnik last week.
“Drones can fight fires – they’re particularly useful for wildfires,” Alfonso Zamarro, the association’s drones activities manager, told the conference. “Drones can help police patrol, and ambulances. They can arrive fast to a scene to deliver medicine or defibrillators. Big enough drones could even carry victims”.
“It sounds very far away but it’s actually coming faster than we think.”
Though drone operations are currently limited to line of sight flights, the technology and traffic management tools are quickly developing to enable them to go further.
Holly Blanks from Pulsiam, a company that is connecting clients with drone control room solutions, told the conference they are seeing increasing interest from emergency services. And the possibilities are significant.
“A traffic drone, for instance, can be out looking for an obstruction,” she explained. “It flags an incident in the command and control system, and without any human involvement it makes a recommendation. The control center can figure out how many officers to send, and when officers arrive on scene they already have information.”
“People think the technology’s not there, but I encourage you to look, because it is,” she added.
For emergency services personnel who patrol large areas of wilderness, such drones are already being used. Filip Biocic, head of the unmanned aerial vehicles department at Croatia’s Mountain Rescue Service, told the conference about how drones are being used to rescue people stranded in Croatia’s imposing mountains.
The service is currently using 30 drones as part of their work, Biocic said, and one of the trickiest parts of the job is making sure things in the air don’t crash into each other. The service uses a flexible airspace pattern, where the drone announces its presence but doesn’t have to fly in a pre-planned flight pattern.
The increased use of drones, for private, commercial and emergency purposes, poses a problem for airspace managers who until now have only had to deal with a limited number of aircraft. A new system of Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management needs to be developed.
Zamarro explained that Croatia’s approach is just one option for how to manage all the new drones that are going to be coming into the sky.
“We’re going to have to start arranging airspace to absorb all this traffic,” he said. “For areas that aren’t congested we could have basic flight, where operators can freely plan and execute, and they’re responsible for avoiding conflict.”
“Or, you can have free routes, where there’s a central authority that makes sure there’s no conflict between submitted plans. For congested areas we can have corridors, where traffic is organized where to go. Human air traffic control towers won’t be enough for all this. We’ll need a system of systems to manage it”.
Overshadowed by Amazon
Despite the significant potential of drones for public services, it is commercial endeavours – such as Amazon’s plan to roll out delivery drones – that are getting the most attention.
“When I tell people I work on drones, everybody asks when they’ll be delivering packages,” said Zamarro. “So far drone activity has been much more focused on commercial needs than public safety.”
This disproportionate interest isn’t limited to the public – it’s also been seen on the part of investors. Drone technology designed for commercial purposes is receiving more attention for financing, even though public services likely has more potential for varied applications that can save lives.
“Because there’s more money in the commercial side that’s going to drive interest,” said Blanks. It’s important that public safety authorities get involved early so that the regulations aren’t just being shaped by the commercial interests, she added.
To that end, Blanks is working to bridge the needs of public safety authorities with the inventors of these emerging technologies. “We bridge agencies with inventors of new technologies,” she said. “We identify risk conditions – such as where birds nest, weather patterns, or battery consumption hazard avoidance.”
The needs and requirements of public safety authorities are different from the ones
focused on commercial applications. Zamarro is therefor lobbying EU lawmakers in Brussels to integrate public safety into the larger regulatory discussion.
Though commercial applications can be easily planned and deployed, unmanned aircrafts for public safety work in more uncertain conditions. If a drone malfunctions in a commercial application, a person might not get their package. If it malfunctions in a public safety application, people could die.
As lawmakers scramble to develop a regulatory framework for these new drones, the potential and pitfalls of drone use in public safety will have to be taken into account. Amazon isn’t the only player in this field.
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