FAA mulls using drones in aircraft accident response

drones aircraft accident

Aircraft engine fires, a collision between two jets, a fire on a flight deck with missing maintenance personnel, a small airplane crashing into a warehouse… these are only some of the emergency scenarios that an airport’s aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) unit have to deal with.

Typically, first responders are able to view accidents like these only from the ground — meaning critical time is lost before incident commanders are able to ascertain where the fire is located, what’s the disposition of the passengers, or how the fire response is proceeding. So now, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is trialling the use of drones to get a bird’s-eye view over aircraft accident scenes.

In collaboration with Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW) Airport, the FAA is conducting research into how airport firefighting can be improved with the help of drones. According to Mike DiPilato, an airport research specialist with the FAA:

Drones will provide an eye in the sky, which will help the incident commander and firefighters make more informed decisions during an accident/incident.

Drones used during simulated aircraft accidents at DFW airport

In the past few weeks, the FAA and DWF firefighters have used during multiple live-action exercises. The drones, which were manually operated by an FAA-certified remote pilot, were generally flown to within 300 feet of a scene, relaying optical and infrared imagery to the incident commanders, who used a wireless handheld tablet to view the live camera feed.

During each scenario, the incident commander instructed the drone pilot on where they would like the drone positioned and what views they would like to see. Some preferred to have the drone circle the scene, searching for victims from the incident, while others used it to monitor a blind spot, allowing firefighters and equipment to focus on a specific section of the scene.

Live feed from the drones as seen from the tablet provided to the incident commanders.

And with each case, it became increasingly clear that drones could be leveraged to enhance the safety and effectiveness of the response. Explains Brian McKinney, DFW’s fire chief:

In an industry where every second counts, drones can be an integral part of any response. The main benefit they bring to the fire scene is increasing the speed of information and providing accessibility in hard-to-reach areas. These tools allow us to see the complete picture of a scene.

In these simulated scenarios, drones were also used to survey the area to locate victims — portrayed by mannequins — who had been ejected from the plane. By substituting drones for firefighters to inspect a simulated small aircraft crash, the ARFF unit could focus their attention on fighting the fire. And as McKinney insists:

Having the ability to scan large areas of terrain without the loss of workforce is highly beneficial.

An FAA drone (upper left-hand corner) monitors a complex crash scenario that includes a debris field.

Integrating drones into the airport environment

It’s worth noting that in addition to ARFF testing, the FAA is also researching the feasibility of integrating drones into the airport environment for airport obstruction surveys, airport pavement inspections, wildlife hazard management, and perimeter security.

While the research has been focused on controlled environments (similar to the ARFF testing) and at small general aviation airports, the agency is planning to expand its research to larger, more complex airports, which will present different challenges and help further the research.

Read more: FAA updates safety guidelines for recreational drone flyers

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