Drones have become a critical tool for professionals working in a large variety of different sectors such as public safety, search and rescue, infrastructure inspection, surveying and mapping, wildlife conservation and many more. Their deployment is key for the missions facing professionals in their daily lives, whether for damage control as we have recently seen during the Notre Dame de Paris fire or in scientific research on land or at sea.
At DJI, we are aiming to build an ecosystem of customers and early adopters, hardware and software partners, service providers, and any other stakeholders in order to realize their full business potential with the use of drones.
Educating and providing hands-on experience for end-users is an on-going task aimed at enabling more people to understand the technology and what it can do for them. With our series #DJIPilotStories, we will feature drone pilots, from different organizations or industries to give their perspective on how drones have become an indispensable technology in their operations.
First of the series is Eric Rodriguez, a pioneer in the use of drones in firefighting in France. He is in charge of monitoring, research and innovation for the fire and rescue service of the Bouches du Rhône department in the Marseille area in the South of France (SDIS13 or Fire and Rescue Department Service 13). The unit he manages consists of 10 pilots and a dozen drones for the general public and professionals.
He also represents Civil Security in the Civilian Drones Council, at the DGAC (the French civilian aviation authority), and he acts as an expert for the European Civil Protection Directorate (DG ECHO). He recently published a book promoting the use of drones in France. We met him to hear more about his work and his vision for UAV technology.
- Tell us how you were exposed to drones for the first time
I landed in the drone world by chance. I was in charge of innovation technology while working at the SDIS 13, and in 2014, I was commissioned to set up a drone unit within our department at the request of our administration. I was fortunate to have the support of SDIS 13 who already have experience in this field.
- Can you tell us about the drone management program implemented in your SDIS?
The drone unit is made up of 10 drone pilots, some of whom are also aircraft or helicopter pilots. A pilot is on daily call and likely to work for his own department or help out with other SDIS. We are fortunate to have a dedicated van which is unique in France. It is capable of carrying a dozen drones, to make images in photogrammetry and to broadcast the shots on an external screen. The van is also equipped with a photovoltaic panel system that makes it independent from electricity for several hours. Beyond the assistance provided to the commander of rescue operations, each drone mission is transmitted in real time to our departmental fire and rescue operations center through live streaming. This has become essential over time because it allows the decision makers to follow an event, understand it better and help with making judgement calls if necessary.
- How many colleagues from your SDIS work on the drone program and what are the roles of each member (pilot, command coordinator, mission leader)?
For the majority of operations, the pilot is capable of carrying out his mission alone. However, each operator is required to contact me, as a technical advisor, before each mission to study the area of operation and assess the risks. In case reinforcement is required, the pilot is supported by a liaison officer who will be the interface with the commander of local rescue operations, or even the aviation authorities.
- What type of DJI drones do you use the most and why?
Our drone unit, like many of our counterparts, regularly uses the PHANTOM 4. The PHANTOM 4 is easy to use, robust, resilient and comes at a very reasonable price. One of our next acquisitions should be the MAVIC PRO Enterprise DUAL. The importance of benefiting from a thermal camera is obvious for a fire department, which, in addition to firefighting, must frequently conduct search and rescue missions at night. In these emergencies, especially when it comes to vulnerable people, it is important to react quickly and to make every effort to find the victims. These are operations that the firefighters have to manage alone most of the time, and it is necessary that they have the right tools.
- What type of missions do you work on with drones?
Any rescue operation that requires reconnaissance may be subject to the use of a drone. The drone has not only become an intelligence tool but, like land robots, it can reduce the level of risk exposure to our team. The civil security drone is taking off, if I dare say so.
- You have published a book entitled "Drones used in civil security relief missions" (Drones. Missions de secours de sécurité civile). Can you describe the content of your book and who your target audience is?
This manual is primarily intended for civil security operators. It refers in particular to the exceptional circumstances of search and rescue operations. However, because it shares several best practices, it offers a simple and pragmatic description how operational flight procedures work. Therefore, it can interest different types of users.
- Do you expect firefighters to adopt drone technology according to the best practices and recommendations you share in this book?
I think that the firefighter community in France is now unanimously convinced of drone technology. We now need administrative and financial support. I am sure that the decision makers will be aware of the added value that these devices can bring in terms of operational performance, communication and risk reduction in particular.
- For you, what are the difficulties that French firefighters encounter in adopting drone technology today?
France is a European example where the use of drones with regards to civil protection missions is possible thanks to the existence of a legal framework. It ensures airspace safety while protecting operators by setting clear limits. The new European regulation will also allow us with more flexibility on certain aspects, notably training. Our role today is to work with the authorities in charge of civil aviation to determine the scope of what is possible.
- Do you think that the use of drones at Notre Dame has improved the perception of the decisive role that drones can play in public safety?
This was not the first time a fire and rescue service used drones on a mission, and we know that. But, this was the first time that such an event got so much media attention. That had more to do with the context (Notre Dame is a world famous site) than with operational innovation. However, we can be satisfied with the attention the use of this new equipment got during this tragic event. This equipment can, without any doubt, significantly change the way we manage a mission.
- What is the most practical advantage for you when using drones for public safety?
Using a drone is to get a higher point of view, and this is necessary to make better decisions. The clear view of an event and its challenges is of paramount importance.
- What would be your dream drone for firefighting missions?
Combining performance, reliability, and price would be ideal. These criteria are not always compatible but we still get very good results with consumer devices. They have their limits, and we are fortunate to also benefit from professional products. Luxury is always about having a choice.
- What technology would you like to see on a drone that would help you in your missions?
Many functions already exist but what is still lacking is the ability to be seen or detected by other aircraft. (All new DJI drone models released after January 1, 2020 that weigh more than 250 grams will include AirSense technology, which receives ADS-B signals from nearby airplanes and helicopters and warns drone pilots if they appear to be on a collision course.) As such, UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) will play a major role in the coming years because coexistence is unavoidable. The example of Monaco is unique because a technological solution allows planes, helicopters and drones to fly in the same airspace safely.
- Tell us about the charity project you support?
The profits of my book are entirely donated to the orphans of the firefighters of France. It is only a little contribution but, in connection with the director of the SDIS13, also president of the National Federation of Firefighters of France (FNSPF), we wanted to associate this work with solidarity.