Los Angeles Fire Department Wants to Double Its Drone Fleet

Adept at using unmanned aerial systems in combating wildfires, the LAFD wants to expand its UAS deployment around the city.

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Fire Department has become accustomed to deploying drones to help make maps for wildfires and offer clearer viewpoints on blazes in the region’s hilly terrain. Now the LAFD is looking to increase its fleet of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to significantly bolster firefighting efforts around the city.

Battalion Chief Richard Fields, head of the LAFD’s UAS program, recently discussed the department’s plan with techcrunch.com to expand its firefighting technologies, including adding more drones to its fleet.

The LAFD currently operates 11 drones, but Fields says department officials want to double that number to increase deployment capabilities.

With an annual budget of more than $690 million, Los Angeles operates one of the largest fire departments in the United States, along with New York and Chicago. Most of the LAFD’s drones were provided by Chinese manufacturer DJI, which the department entered into an agreement with in April.

The LAFD is consider a leader in UAS in firefighting efforts in the United States. An expanded UAS fleet will bolster the department’s efforts, Fields explained.

“Our next iteration is to start using our drones to assist our specialized resources,” Fields said, referring to the LAFD’s firefighters and support crews tasked with handling urban search and rescue and marine environments and swift water rescues. These teams are also responsible for dealing with hazardous materials.

The technological 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. LAFD teams can verify what they are able to see from emergency areas using the heat signatures that the sensors pick up.

Training to become a UAS 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,” he says.

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