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Hose, axe, UAV: How drones have become essential to firefighting

Five years ago, it would have been exceedingly rare to find a fire department that was using a drone as part of its tool kit. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major fire department that either doesn’t already have a drone, or isn’t planning on getting one. Drones can simply do too much valuable work to not have them.

When DJI launched the original Phantom, it was launching much more: A catalyst for a variety of use-case scenarios. Initially, of course, it was the hobbyists flying drones. But soon, they and others were coming up with new ways to use these products. What started as aerial photographs, for example, would trigger sophisticated mapping over time. New sensors would lead to the field of Precision Agriculture. Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) from the air opened a multitude of other doors, and so on. At some point, a person from a fire department — perhaps even someone who already flew as a hobbyist — thought it might be worth bringing a drone along to the scene of a fire.

Multiple benefits

The immediate benefits are clear: A drone in the air can give a decision-maker on the ground immediate situational awareness: How intense is the fire? Does the structure appear safe for firefighters to enter? What about the roof – is the fire threatening that portion of the building? Are other nearby structures in danger? Is anyone on the ground at risk? How thick is the smoke – does it appear to be getting better or worse? Are there any fuels or hazardous chemicals stored nearby that could cause problems? You get the idea — there’s a lot of data that can be quickly obtained.

“We are seeing a very large adoption worldwide by fire departments and fire brigades,” says Olivier Mondon, DJI communications manager for Europe.

Firefighters trained with drones on the scene outside the St. Peter & Paul Cathedral in Nantes, France. Photo: SDIS 44

Situational awareness

This situational awareness is key: Every significant fire is a race against time.

Once a fire is under way, it can spread tremendously fast. Firefighters obviously want to save lives first, and then save structures. Having a drone in the air — and here we are simply talking about an Eye in the Sky — provides additional perspective that cannot be obtained from the ground. That information, which can be thought of as data, helps decision-makers determine how to best deploy resources. Deployments are then made on best available data. The presence of the drone also means that human beings aren’t placed unnecessarily in harm’s way. It’s better to have a drone assess the integrity of a roof than by placing a firefighter up on a ladder to look.

First responders

Of course, other first responders have also seen the effectiveness of drones. Search & Rescue units, police departments, paramedics, lifeguard stations and more have also widely incorporated drones in recent years. They can just help with so many situations.

French fire commandant and drone pilot Michaël Guet. Photo: SDIS 44

As a company, DJI recognized the growing importance of this market sector early on. Specifically, it was Romeo Durscher, the company’s senior director of public safety integration, who became an early internal advocate and external educator. Romeo is constantly meeting and working with first responders to help spread the knowledge. He also takes their collective feedback to the company, which incorporates new features in both hardware and software based on what this emerging market requires.

“The public safety sector is currently the largest on the enterprise side,” Romeo told me in a recent interview. He continued:

Four years ago, when I started talking about putting a focus on public safety, everyone was looking at me with big eyes. Obviously this is a tool that can provide immediate intel or intelligence later down the road. That’s the number one vertical.

Romeo Durscher, DJI


For those already following the drone world, the steady adoption by fire departments was common knowledge. But the benefits of drones to firefighting operations became clear to the rest of the world in 2019, when the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire.

The fire appears to have been accidental, likely caused by renovation work. But the implications were clear: An 850-year-old building, arguably one of the most famous in the world, was in jeopardy. Flames were eating away at the organ, the roof, the incredible stained-glass windows, even the spire (which ultimately toppled).

In come the drones

Drones were quickly dispatched for situational awareness. Interestingly, the Paris Fire Brigade did not have a drone unit at the time. Drones and operators were sent by the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Culture.

Normally, DJI products flying in downtown Paris would be locked out by the No-Fly-Zones built into the software. The company was contacted and quickly made an exception for the drones involved with this mission. (DJI now has a program where verified First Responders in certain parts of the world can be excluded from No-Fly-Zone restrictions.) Soon, a female pilot had a drone in the air, and decision-makers on the ground were watching closely via a monitor inside a van.

One of those who took a special interest in the role drones played at this event, unsurprisingly, was DJI’s Romeo Durscher:

One of Romeo’s Tweets following the Notre-Dame fire.

Saving critical time

In the case of Notre-Dame, the firefighters needed that critical awareness as soon as possible. And that’s what drones were able to to provide.

““They’re not only saving lives, they’re also saving buildings,” explains Mondon:

When time is of importance and you only have so many resources, having a drone can be very helpful: When you don’t have time to deploy ladders, when the ladders are not high enough to go over the roof of the cathedral. So the only way for the fire department in Paris to see what was happening on the scene was to see what the drone was seeing.

Olivier Mondon, DJI

Eye from above

It’s easy to see, from the photo above of the DJI app, that the image from the drone was able to provide perspective that would have been impossible to gain from even a ladder, let alone the ground. Plus, that image was available quickly, an important factor in a race against time.

And while the M210 offered the added option of using its FLIR camera for thermal images, it’s believed the firefighters relied solely on visual spectrum imagery during the immediate battle against this fire. As the fire burned on into the night, drones kept flying and relaying imagery to the ground. Just look at this:

Clear data

Decision-makers huddled in and around the van, wanting to see what the drone could see. André Finot was also there. The Notre-Dame spokesperson says it was incredible, seeing that perspective.

When we arrived and saw these images, we understood right away that they came from a drone and not from a helicopter. Otherwise it would move and shake. We were blown away by the technology.

André Finot, Notre-Dame

The time during the fire, as you might imagine, was one of intense stress and uncertainty. Along with the Eiffel Tower, it’s a building that almost defines France. Finot realized the drone’s streaming feed was providing more than clear video: It was providing evidence that no renovation workers or others had somehow become trapped on top of the building.

It was the drone, that night, which actually reassured everyone right away. Because we could see that the fire had started from the top of the building and we know that nobody ever works at that height. As we saw all the vaults (architectural feature), we understood nothing had collapsed at that point.”

André Finot, Notre-Dame

On the ground

Once the fire was eventually under control, firefighters also used crawling drones. The Shark Robotics Colossus was able to spray directed water and provide imagery without requiring any human being to enter the cathedral:

Colussus at work

Scanning interiors

Even once the fire was out, it was unclear how safe or unsafe Notre-Dame’s interior would be. And that’s where another company came in: Artelia, a massive architectural and engineering consortium, dispatched a Phantom 4 RTK (Realtime Kinematic Sensor for greater spatial accuracy) to fly the interior of Notre-Dame. It produced a highly detailed, 3D interior map. In fact, it providing an even more comprehensive view than would have been obtained by a firefighter.

Obviously you couldn’t immediately send a human being in. Drones were deployed not only to help fight against the flames, but also to map the whole interior of the cathedral after the fire. It was like seeing everything, memorizing everything, and this company made it possible for investigators to virtually go all around the inside of the building without setting a foot inside.

Olivier Mondon, DJI Europe

The firefighters were also able to borrow a Mavic 2 Enterprise loaned by local police. Once the fire was extinguished, they scanned the exterior of the cathedral’s facade to inspect for any other potential damage. You can catch more of the story in this DJI interview with Notre-Dame’s André Finot. This version is just under 15 minutes long; you’ll find a shorter version here.

Notre-Dame’s spokesperson, André Finot

The FLIR difference

Of course, thermal imaging adds a whole new layer to data from above. Using thermal, firefighters can identify hotspots before flames are even visible, and even after the worst of the flames have been contained. In fact, one of the constant challenges in firefighting is ensuring that all embers that may not be visible – and which may even be buried under tons of debris – have been extinguished. A FLIR camera with its thermal imaging capabilities does just that. (It’s also an incredible feature for Search & Rescue operations. This is especially true at night, when the warmth of a human being will contrast sharply against the cooler surroundings.)

A picture is worth 1,000 words

Many fire departments that have a drone don’t necessarily have the latest Enterprise model with FLIR cameras or other sensors.

And that’s okay. Because even having the most basic drone can still provide decision-makers on the ground with an image from above. Just imagine how much time and risk would have been involved in getting a ladder high enough to get even a glimpse of the situation on the roof. Clearly, this is a better way.

From Paris to Nantes

On July 18, some 15 months after the Notre-Dame fire, another historic French cathedral was at risk. Fire (later determined to be arson) had broken out at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. The Nantes Cathedral’s origins date back to 1435, when construction began. The ambitious project, with its amazing main organ as a centerpiece, was not completed until 1891.

On the morning of July 18, all of that history was potentially in jeopardy:

A potential disaster underway

Firefighters and drones dispatched

The local fire brigade quickly mobilized, and soon nearly 100 people were on the scene. Among them was Commandant Michaël Guet, who is in charge of the drone unit in Nantes. The team has three DJI Mavic Pro Platinums and one Mavic Mini for training. The firefighters arrived on site at 7:50 a.m., and a Mavic Pro was in the air by 8:10 a.m.

Nantes Cathedral Fire as seen by drone
Within 20 minutes of arriving, Guet was sharing vital information obtained by drone. Photo: SDIS 44

“Last year, we made 20 operations using drones during fires,” Guet told DroneDJ. “And this one is the biggest, but for a pilot, it’s not difficult.”

The most important thing the drone can do is buy time. You have the same information, but you acquire it earlier and more quickly than you could on the ground. And it’s with all situations: Building fires, forest fires, other wildfires — even hazardous waste. The drone wins you time. And for that reason, I think it can be put to use on a lot of missions. 

Michaël Guet, SDIS 44 Fire Brigade

Perfect conditions

As a drone pilot, Guet was assessing the conditions for flying. They were excellent that day: Clear sky, no rain, no real wind. Even the smoke in the picture above is drifting slowly. The drone was flown to assess the roof, both to ensure there were no people who might need rescuing and also to examine whether the fire had spread to the top. Thankfully, it had not. And that, in combination with the location of the flames, quickly reassured Guet and others who could watch the feed that the cathedral was not at imminent risk in the way Notre-Dame had been.

DJI’s Mondon says it was a textbook mission:

The drones were deployed very quickly. They helped firefighters to have a great view from a safe distance. As a result, there were able to guide firefighting through the flames and direct it to the right places. That’s very important to have.

Olivier Mondon, DJI Europe

Inside story

And here’s how things looked on the inside, with an image also shot by a Nantes firefighting drone:

Nantes Cathedral
The organ and stained glass were the greatest casualties here. Photo: SDIS 44

Even hazmat

Guet says his unit has already spent about a year working with drones — an experimental phase to prove they would be useful. One of the jobs involved a potential leak of hydrochloric acid. A couple of firefighters were fully suited up in protective gear and on their way to investigate. A drone had already scoped the situation, and was now being used to monitor the firefighters as they moved around the site by foot. The drone was able to observe them and see the firefighters give the signal all was well. In fact, says Guet, using radios inside those protective suits can be difficult, so being able to send a message by simply waving at the drone made things simpler for the crew.

For Guet, the value of drones is clear. And now that the department has decided to stick with them, he’s hoping the Brigade’s next drones will have a FLIR camera for thermal imaging, and perhaps even a speaker like the Mavic 2 Enterprise.

Regularly at the seaside, we have people who are lost on the sea. With a loudspeaker and optical zoom, we can say: ‘Don’t move, we’re on the way…’ Or ‘No swimming in this area…’

Michaël Guet, SDIS44
Nantes Cathedral
Inside, a drone looks down on the smouldering remnants of the Nantes Cathedral organ. Photo: SDIS 44


So did drones save Notre-Dame? The inferno was well under way when drones got in the air, but they did offer that key perspective that allowed firefighters to concentrate their efforts where it counted – and ultimately save the remainder of the structure. At the time, a spokesperson for the Paris Fire Brigade told a French news outlet that drones did indeed play a critical role in saving the historical building:

It is thanks to these drones, to this new technique which is absolutely essential today, that we were able to make tactical choices to stop this fire at a time when it would potentially occupy the two belfries.The drones made it possible to properly engage the means at our disposal.

Gabriel Plus, Paris Fire Brigade

It’s a position echoed by DJI’s Mondon: Drones helped save the day.

The experiment is over

Drones have clearly proven themselves as an essential tool for firefighting. They offer near-instantaneous situational awareness, help decision-makers deploy resources more efficiently, and protect first responders from hazardous situations. Better to put a machine at risk than a human.

As new sensors emerge and hit the marketplace, the use-case scenarios and adoption will only grow. DJI’s Mondon recalls a case that occurred last year in Rouen, France, at an industrial site. Chemicals were burning and it was unknown how toxic the air might be and what compounds might be present.

“It was quite dangerous,” recalls Mondon.

Drones still played a critical role, giving decision-makers a ‘Big Picture’ on this dangerous conflagration.

Footage from firefighter drones over a toxic fire in Rouen, France

Buying time at a fire is one thing that any drone can do. But the ability to actually determine what toxins might be in the air is something else.

“They didn’t know the kind of gases that were coming out of it. Now, we have can have drones that also detect gases before we send people into a potentially dangerous area.”

He’s talking about sensors that are devised to ‘sniff’ the air for identifiable molecules, particularly volatile compounds. In fact, when the Rouen fire took place, Mondon was in North America at DJI’s AirWorks Conference. That’s where (and when) FLIR unveiled its then-new MUVE 360 gas detector, which can be mounted on a DJI Enterprise drone. This capacity, for firefighters, is huge.

The future?

And while we can marvel at all the amazing things drones can do — with visible spectrum cameras, FLIR thermal cameras, laser-imaging LiDAR models, molecule-sniffing sensors, and more — don’t forget that other technology will add to this impressive tool kit before long.

“Drones are still a young technology, yet they have become the new angels of our Cathedrals,” says DJI’s Mondon. “And there is no doubt that they will play an increasing active role in innovating firefighting techniques solutions.”

Commandant Michaël Guet: Firefighters deserve every tool possible. Photo: SDIS 44

And what will the future hold when it comes to drones and firefighting?

We can’t say for certain. But we do know this: We can’t wait to see it.

Follow author Scott Simmie on Twitter here.