Austin firefighters’ drone program goes for a test flight


The four small blades of a black, eight-pound drone started spinning faster and faster as Austin firefighters prepared the aircraft for a test flight Wednesday at the Travis County Exposition Center.

One of the firefighters was holding a remote control and another one stood feet away keeping an eye on the aircraft at all times. A third firefighter was following the drone’s movement in a monitor while a fourth person oversaw the team’s work.

They are part of the Austin Fire Department’s eight-member robotic emergency deployment team, who have been working for a year on creating a program that will let them use remote-controlled aircraft systems during wildfires, high-rise fires and potential hazardous material operations.

“These devices will give us a heads up to what’s ahead of fire trucks,” said Richard Davis, assistant chief with the Austin Fire Department.

Davis has worked for five years to make drone aircraft systems a reality within the department. The process, he said, has seemed long but it will would help firefighters better serve the community.

“Our ideology is not to rush and deploy as quick as some public entities have done,” Davis said.

Austin is one of a handful of cities where firefighters are actively working on such a program. While drones are often used in the country by hobbyists, Davis said it was important that their department’s policies on using such aircraft are as responsible as possible.

“Those individuals who fly for a hobby, they are just there to get the cool pictures,” Davis said. “If we would deploy, we are going to be out there to save lives.”

Since city officials gave Davis a green light to explore the idea of bringing drones to the fire department, Austin firefighters have learned to operate the small devices, worked on policies on how to use them and even helped operate drones during the May floods in Wimberley with approval of the Federal Aviation Administration.

For weeks, they worked closely with Gene Robinson, a 59-year-old drone manufacturer who is a member of the Wimberley Volunteer Fire Department, as authorities struggled to locate residents trapped during the floods.

But there’s still a long road ahead before the Austin Fire Department can use drones during fires. Firefighters are taking a five-day training that will give them the opportunity to perfect their skills with the small, remotely controlled aircraft that can fly up to 200 feet above the ground.

Davis said it will take at least one more year before the department begins deploying its own drones during emergencies.


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