The Los Angeles Fire Department wants more drones

As it looks to modernize its operations, the Los Angeles Fire Department is turning to a number of new technologies, including expanding its fleet of drones for a slew of new deployments.

One of the largest fire departments in the U.S., next to New York and Chicago, the LAFD has a budget of roughly $ 691 million, employs more than 3,500 and responded to 492,717 calls in 2018.

The department already has a fleet of 11 drones to complement its fleet of 258 fire engines, ambulances and helicopters.

However, Battalion Chief Richard Fields, the head of the department’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program, would like to see that number increase significantly.

Los Angeles has become an early leader in the use of drones for its firefighting applications thanks in part to an agreement with the Chinese company DJI, which the department inked back in April.

At the time, the Chinese drone manufacturer and imaging technology developer announced an agreement to test and deploy DJI drones as an emergency response preparedness tool. The company called it one DJI’s largest partnerships with a fire-fighting agency in the U.S.

“We are excited to be strengthening our partnership with the LAFD, one of the nation’s preeminent public safety agencies, to help them take advantage of DJI’s drone technology that has been purpose-built for the public safety sector,” said Bill Chen, Enterprise Partnerships manager at DJI, in a statement at the time. “Through our two-way collaboration, DJI will receive valuable insight into the complexities of deploying drones for emergency situations in one of the most complex urban environments in the nation.”

Now, roughly five months later, the program seems to have been successful enough that Battalion Chief Fields is looking to double the fleet.

“Our next iteration is to start using our drones to assist our specialized resources,” said Fields. Those are firefighters and support crews that deal with hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, marine environments and swift water rescues, Fields said.

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The LAFD Swift Water Rescue Team. Photo courtesy of Flickr/ LAFD Mike Horst

The technologal demands of the fire department extend beyond the drone itself, Fields said. “There are a lot of technologies that allows us to make the drone more versatile… the most valuable tool isn’t the drone; it’s the sensor.”

So far, the most useful application has been using infrared technologies to balance what’s visible and combine it with the heat signatures the sensors pick up.

Training to become a drone pilot for the LAFD is particularly intense, Fields says. The typical pilot will get up to 80 hours of training. “Our training is nation-leading. There’s nothing out there in the commercial market that beats it,” according to Fields.

For now, the entire LAFD fleet is composed of DJI drones, something that has given military and civilian officials pause in the past few years.

Concerns have been growing over the reliance on Chinese technology in core American infrastructure, extending from networking technology companies like Huawei to drone technology developers like DJI.

Back in 2018, the Department of Defense issued a ban on the acquisition and use of commercial drones, citing cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The ban came a year after officials from the Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress called out DJI specifically for its potential to be used by the Chinese government to spy on the United States.

However, the rule isn’t set in stone, and many branches of the military continue to use DJI drones, according to a September Voice of America News report.

In Los Angeles, Fields says he takes those concerns seriously. The department has worked closely with regulators and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to craft a strict policy around what gets done with the data the LAFD collects.

“The way that we establish our program is that the drone provides us with our real-time situational awareness,” said Fields. “That helps the incident commander get a visual perspective of the problem and he can make better decisions.”

The only data that is recorded and kept, says Fields, is data collected around brush fires so the LAFD can do a damage assessment, which can later be turned into map layers to keep records of hotspots.

As for data that could be sent back to China, Fields says that any mapping of critical infrastructure is done without connecting to the internet. “It’s being collected on the drone and 90% of that information is how the drone is operating. There is some information of where the drone is and how it is and the [latitude] and [longitude] of the drone itself… That’s the data that’s being collected,” Fields says. 

From Fields’ perspective, if the government is so concerned about the use of drones made by a foreign manufacturer, there’s an easy solution. Just regulate it.

“Let’s come up with a standard. If you use them in a federal airspace these are the check marks that you have to pass,” he says. “Saying that DJI drones are bad because they come from China [and] let’s throw them all out… that’s not an answer either.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch

DJI launches new industrial drones for agriculture and new services for industry customers

DJI announced two new drones and a new initiative to support first responders during natural disasters and recovery missions with drone technologies as it moves to consolidate its position as the leading drone technology provider.

The company hyped its new multispectral drone as the world’s first fully integrated multispectral imaging drone to enable more efficient land management, and the Agras T16, which is a spray drone to apply fertilizers and pesticides to field crops and orchards.

For first responders, the company is working with pre-selected U.S.-based partners to equip state and local public safety agencies with hardware and software from the company. Initially DJI is working with public and volunteer institutions like the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the volunteer-based Public Safety Unmanned Response Team North Texas. Companies distributing and managing services include FlyMotion and Axon (which was formerly known as Taser International).

These partnerships are being pursued even as the U.S. military has officially banned the use of DJI drones since 2017 because of security concerns. The military still purchases DJI drones on a case-by-case basis, but there have been a number of red flags raised by U.S. defense and intelligence officials over the potential threat that using Chinese equipment may pose to national security.

“This program builds on DJI’s growing commitment to the public safety industry, as more than 900 public safety organizations across the United States, including the Los Angeles Fire Department, are deploying DJI drones for lifesaving activities,” said Romeo Durscher, director of Public Safety Integration at DJI. “To date, at least 278 people around the world have been rescued from peril by drones, and this program will ensure that many more lives are saved by mitigating the risks to emergency responders on the ground and on the front lines of natural disasters.”

Drone hardware and software distributed through the program will include DJI’s most advanced technologies, including the DJI Matrice 200 series and Mavic 2 Enterprise series drones, accessories and batteries, powerful visual and thermal cameras, DJI’s FlightHub drone fleet management software, and DJI AeroScope for airspace management and unauthorized drone detection and mitigation. In addition, DJI will provide technical support, repair services and on-site manpower to help organizations more effectively and efficiently deploy drone technology in times of need.

“Over the past year DJI has focused on delivering enterprise-grade drone technology that enables some of the most sophisticated businesses and government agencies in America to safely and securely deploy drone technology into their daily operations,” said Mario Rebello, vice president and Americas Regional Manager at DJI. “This year we aim to put our easy-to-use drones in the hands of farmers, agronomists and land stewards to help manage their lands in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way, while also making sure we equip emergency responders with access to the industry’s best tools and support they need to rapidly respond and save lives during natural disasters.”

DJI also took the opportunity to show off its drones as a platform for other technology developers, with FLIR Systems introducing its first multi-gas detector integrated with the DJI Matrice 210 drone for applications in chemical, industrial and environmental monitoring. DJI is allowing for even more development with the creation of a DJI X-Port, a gimbal attachment that allows hardware developers to integrate their own sensors, cameras and arrays. The X-Port features built-in communication APIs, SkyPort integration and a gimbal debugging interface to bring more sensors to market.

Finally, the company introduced new service protection plans like the “Enterprise Shield Basic Renew,” which offers a reduced-price product replacement for a damaged drone within one year of purchase and a “Shield Plus Renew” plan, which offers unlimited product replacements or free repair services within a year for the coverage amount a company purchases.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Climate activists plan to use drones to shut down Heathrow Airport next month

A UK group of climate activists is planning to fly drones close to Heathrow Airport next month in a direct action they hope will shut down the country’s largest airport for days or even longer.

The planned action is in protest at the government’s decision to green-light a third runway at Heathrow.

They plan to use small, lightweight “toy” drones, flown at head high (6ft) within a 5km drone ‘no fly’ zone around the airport — but not within flight paths. The illegal drone flights will also be made in the early morning at a time when there would not be any scheduled flights in the air space to avoid any risk of posing a threat to aircraft.

The activists point out that the government recently declared a climate emergency — when it also pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 — arguing there is no chance of meeting that target if the UK expands current airport capacity.

A press spokesman for the group, which is calling itself Heathrow Pause, told TechCrunch: “Over a thousand child are dying as a result of climate change and ecological collapse — already, every single day. That figure is set to significantly worsen. The government has committed to not just reducing carbon emissions but reducing them to net zero — that is clearly empirically impossible if they build another runway.”

The type of drones they plan to use for the protest are budget models which they say can be bought cheaply at UK retailer Argos — which, for example, sells the Sky Viper Stunt Drone for £30; the Revell GO! Stunt Quadcopter Drone for £40; and the Revell Spot 2.0 Quadcopter (which comes with a HD camera) for £50.

The aim for the protest is to exploit what the group dubs a loophole in Heathrow’s health and safety protocol around nearby drone flights to force it to close down runways and ground flights.

Late last year a spate of drone sightings near the UK’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, led to massive disruption for travellers just before Christmas after the airport responded by grounding flights.

At the time, the government was sharply criticized for having failed to foresee weaknesses in the regulatory framework around drone flights near sensitive sites like airports.

In the following months it responded by beefing up what was then a 1km airport exclusion zone to 5km — with that expanded ‘no fly’ zone coming into force in March. However a wider government plan to table a comprehensive drones bill has faced a number of delays.

It’s the larger 5km ‘no fly’ zone that the Heathrow Pause activists are targeting in a way they hope will safely trigger the airport’s health & safety protocol and shut down the airspace and business as usual.

Whether the strategy to use drones as a protest tool to force the closure of the UK’s largest airport will fly remains to be seen.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow airport told us it’s confident it has “robust plans” in place to ensure the group’s protest does not result in any disruption to flights. However she would not provide any details on the steps it will take to avoid having to close runways and ground flights, per its safety protocol.

When we put the airport’s claim of zero disruption from intended action back to Heathrow Pause, its spokesman told us: “Our understanding is that the airport’s own health and safety protocols dictate that they have to ground airplanes if there are any drones of any size flying at any height anywhere within 5km of the airport.

“Our position would be that it’s entirely up to them what they do. That the action that we’re taking does not pose a threat to anybody and that’s very deliberately the case. Having said that I’d be surprised to hear that they’re going to disregard their own protocols even if those are — in our view — excessive. It would still come as a surprise if they weren’t going to follow them.”

“We won’t be grounding any flights in any circumstances,” he added. “It’s not within our power to do so. All of the actions that have been planned have been meticulously planned so as not to pose any threat to anybody. We don’t actually see that there need to be flights grounded either. Having said that clearly it would be great if Heathrow decided to ground flights. Every flight that’s grounded is that much less greenhouse gas pumped into the atmosphere. And it directly saves lives.

“The fewer flights there are the better. But if there are no flights cancelled we’d still consider the action to be an enormous success — purely upon the basis of people being arrested.”

The current plan for the protest is to start illegally flying drones near Heathrow on September 13 — and continue for what the spokesman said could be as long as “weeks”, depending on how many volunteer pilots it can sign up. He says they “anticipate” having between 50 to 200 people willing to risk arrest by breaching drone flight law.

The intention is to keep flying drones for as long as people are willing to join the protest. “We are hoping to go for over a week,” he told us.

Given the plan has been directly communicated to police the spokesman conceded there is a possibility that the activists could face arrest before they are able to carry out the protest — which he suggested might be what Heathrow is banking on.

Anyone who flies a drone in an airport’s ‘no fly’ zone is certainly risking arrest and prosecution under UK law. Penalties for the offence range from fines to life imprisonment if a drone is intentionally used to cause violence. But the group is clearly taking pains to avoid accusations the protest poses a safety risk or threatens violence — including by publishing extensive details of their plan online, as well as communicating it to police and airport authorities.

A detailed protocol on their website sets out the various safety measures and conditions the activists are attaching to the drone action — “to ensure no living being is harmed”. Such as only using drones lighter than 7kg, and giving the airport an hour’s advance notice ahead of each drone flight.

They also say they have a protocol to shut down the protest in the event of an emergency — and will have a dedicated line of communication open to Heathrow for this purposes.

Some of the activists are scheduled to meet with police and airport authorities  tomorrow, face to face, at a London police station to discuss the planned action.

The group says it will only call off the action if the Heathrow third runway expansion is cancelled.

In an emailed statement in response to the protest, Heathrow Airport told us:

We agree with the need to act on climate change. This is a global issue that requires constructive engagement and action. Committing criminal offences and disrupting passengers is counterproductive.

Flying of any form of drone near Heathrow is illegal and any persons found doing so will be subject to the full force of the law. We are working closely with the Met Police and will use our own drone detection capability to mitigate the operational impact of any illegal use of drones near the airport.

Asked why the environmental activists have selected drones as their tool of choice for this protest, rather than deploying more traditional peaceful direct action strategies, such as trespassing on airport grounds or chaining themselves to fixed infrastructure, the Heathrow Pause spokesman told us: “Those kind of actions have been done in the past and they tend to result in very short duration of time during which very few flights are cancelled. What we are seeking to do is unprecedented in terms of the duration and the extent of the disruption that we would hope to cause.

“The reason for drones is in order to exploit this loophole in the health and safety protocols that have been presented to us — that it’s possible for a person with a toy drone that you can purchase for a couple of quid, miles away from any planes, to cause an entire airport to stop having flights. It is quite an amazing situation — and once it became apparent that that was really a possibility it almost seemed criminal not to do it.”

He added that drone technology, and the current law in the UK around how drones can be legally used, present an opportunity for activists to level up their environmental protest — “to cause so much disruption with so few people and so little effort” — that it’s simply “a no brainer”.

During last year’s Gatwick drone debacle the spokesman said he received many enquiries from journalists asking if the group was responsible for that. They weren’t — but the mass chaos caused by the spectre of a few drones being flown near Gatwick provided inspiration for using drone technology for an environmental protest.

The group’s website is hosting video interviews with some of the volunteer drone pilots who are willing to risk arrest to protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport on environmental grounds.

In a statement there, one of them, a 64-year-old writer called Valerie Milner-Brown, said: “We are in the middle of a climate and ecological emergency. I am a law-abiding citizen — a mother and a grandmother too. I don’t want to break the law, I don’t want to go to prison, but right now we, as a species, are walking off the edge of a cliff. Life on Earth is dying. Fires are ravaging the Amazon. Our planet’s lungs are quite literally on fire. Hundreds of species are going extinct every day. We are experiencing hottest day after hottest day, and the Arctic is melting faster than scientists’ worst predictions.

“All of this means that we have to cut emissions right now, or face widespread catastrophe on an increasingly uninhabitable planet. Heathrow Airport emits 18 million tons of CO2 a year. That’s more than most countries. A third runway will produce a further 7.3 million tons of CO2. For all Life — now and in the future — we have to take action. I’m terrified but if this is what it will take to make politicians, business leaders and the media wake up, then I’m prepared to take this action and to face the consequences.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch