Menlo Park fire district plans to use drones, robot


A few years from now, if technology at the Menlo Park Fire Protection District develops as planned, responses to fire emergencies are likely to include a camera-equipped drone taking to the skies from the fire station on Chilco Street.

After using its own guidance system to locate the nearest arterial a major road or railroad the drone would follow a grid and fly itself to the scene, where it would transmit aerial views of the incident to firefighters.

These proposals are part Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman's three-year plan for the district, contained in a report entitled "Rise of the Machines," recently presented to the district's Board of Directors as an update.

Major items in the program, such as an autonomous drone and docking station, will require approval by the board, the chief said.

Mr. Schapelhouman is also thinking about a device for the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory on Sand Hill Road: a fire-detecting robot -- custom built with the district's collaboration, the chief said -- stationed in the two-mile-long tunnel that houses the electron accelerator.

Fighting a fire underground in this 1960s-era tunnel is potentially dangerous to firefighters due to the constrained space and limited number of entry points, the chief said. But because the tunnel is straight and flat, a robot on a track or wheels might locate a fire, give firefighters a view and perhaps contribute to fighting it with an on-board extinguisher, he said.

The fire district is somewhat ahead of its peers in the use of technology, particularly drones, the chief said. The proximity of Silicon Valley's high-tech centers has given the district openings for trying out ideas, exploring partnerships and sometimes finding new paths.

"We're really excited about what's going on," the chief said. "I didn't plan on (being a pathfinder), but that is where we are."

The district is considered "very progressive" when compared with agencies elsewhere, he said. "These things are happening. We're getting people calling us from all over the United States."

In addition to its association with SLAC, the district has been engaged with the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffitt Field in Mountain View and graduate students at Stanford University. The district has a working relationship with a Menlo Park-based drone manufacturer and is seeking dialogues with two others, as well as one in San Francisco.

The district is even contemplating the idea of hosting a conference in 2017 on drones and firefighting.

Ironically, the district owns a drone but has not been using it. The needed FAA authorization came in May 2016. The district has had aerial videos of incidents, but prepared by a photographer certified to operate a drone, the chief said.

The district allocated $25,000 for for the current budget year to prepare six two-person drone flight teams, with a pilot and an operator on each team. NASA Ames has been helping in the flight team training, the chief said.

Public trust

The Menlo Park fire district owns one drone and plans to buy two more. Under the chief's proposals, the district's capabilities would expand to include visual tracking of moving objects, collision avoidance, a capacity to carry a payload of up to 6 pounds, and an infrared camera that detects objects on the ground based on their temperature.

There are plans to fly at night, over crowds and, controlled by small hand-held devices, indoors -- all activities not currently allowed by the FAA. The district will be working with the FAA to develop rules, policies and procedures, in part to maintain the trust of the public, the chief said.

"We don't want to blow up our program before it ever gets off the ground," he said. "How do you run a program like this if you lose the public's trust or you create a dilemma with an accident?"

He noted the public outcry in 2014 in Alameda County and the city of San Jose when law enforcement authorities bought drones without giving the public a sufficient opportunity to weigh in, the chief said.

"We want to be as responsible and as practical and as efficient as you can be" in getting the program going, he said. Part of that is determining public sentiment about unmanned aerial vehicles overhead that may be equipped with cameras, he said.

Drones were discussed in October 2014 at a board meeting, followed by a detailed implementation plan that included obtaining the FAA certificate, arranging for insurance, operator training and developing procedures, the chief said.

"We slowed down and ... did the public process first," he said. "It shows that we're moving forward, but we're not taking a great leap."


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