May 28, 2024

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The FDNY Drone Program: Pilots Talk Training, Challenges, and Changes


cisc1970, CC BY 2.0

Fire Department of New York (FDNY) on operating public safety drones in cities: from the floor of the National Public Safety UAS Conference.

DroneLife · FDNY – Drone – Program

Michael Wall, Michael Leo, and Kevin O’Malley are members of one of the best known public safety departments in the world: FDNY.  Despite the challenges of operating in an urban environment, FDNY supports their responders from the air.  In a presentation at the National Public Safety UAS Conference, the team discussed the lessons they’ve learned from building a drone program and flying in NYC.

So You Want to Be an FDNY Drone Pilot…

Capt. Michael Leo is the director of the FDNY Special Operations Command Robotics division, Mike Wall and Kevin O’Malley are veteran FDNY firefighters and UAS pilots.  The FDNY drone program has reached a stage of maturity where the team has now identified an ideal profile for new candidates: one that ensures that their drones will be used most effectively. While they look at every candidate individually, in general, they’re looking for experienced firefighters rather than experienced drone pilots. “We choose people based on personality and interest, not experience,” says Mike Wall.  “Skills can be learned.”

“There are only 14 of us, so we need someone who meshes well with the crew,” points out Kevin O’Malley.

They’ve also established the ideal time for a firefighter to enter the program.  “We’re looking to hire someone at about the 10 years of service mark – these people have grown up with technology,” says Wall, “but they know how the department works, they know what’s expected.  We also know we’re going to have that person around for another 10-15 years.”

Developing a Training Program: What “Micro Training” Means for First Response

The team considers a Part 107 certification as a pre-requisite: the first thing prospective members can do to demonstrate interest.  “A Part 107 shows that you’ve invested in yourself,” says Kevin O’Malley.  “But that’s just the bare bones training.”

FDNY pilots then go through a 5-day training course, which starts with basic UAS knowledge and an ability assessment that uses NIST standards, and moves through mission planning, interior flight, close quarters flight, live fire scenarios, thermal imaging and more.   These training days are designed to build the skills that the FDNY needs in their unique environment.

“In general, we don’t do much interior flight,” said Mike Wall.  “But in New York, we’re dealing with GPS multi-pathing, obstructed sky, wind … there are so many issues that can lead to a fly-away.  Interior flight helps members get used to stick control, so they can take over if they need to.”

Most of the training takes place in public parks.  That’s not only because of the open space – but also because it provides an opportunity for community interaction.  “We really encourage people to come up and talk to us,” says Mike Wall.

After the 5 day training course, new pilots shadow more experienced flyers until they’re ready to reverse roles, taking the pilot role under the supervision of the more experienced member

The Concept of Micro Training: Future Goals

FDNY is a big city department.  They are subject matter experts in urban operations: from the wind tunnels in Manhattan to dealing with traffic.  NYC also has over 560 miles of coastline, making maritime operations a key focus.  Ideally, says Mike Wall, they could pass the basic training burden off to a third party – and focus on “micro training,” developing the skills necessary for daily operations in NYC.

Micro Training could be a model that leverages the skill sets of departments around the country.  With shared standards, departments could work to develop the training programs relevant to their experience: whether that’s operations in a specific terrain or for a specific purpose, like dealing with riptides in Hawaii, or hazardous materials disposal.

“By combining private sector and internal training focused on site specific UAS operations, like operating in the urban environment, you get the best of both worlds,” says Mike Wall.  “You can stay in your lane and focus on the training that you need – and develop subject matter experts.  Micro-training is small and focused drills that cover specific use cases that are unique to your department’s area of operation.”

“[Micro training] helps create standardization in specific UAS operations – if you’re very good at marine operations, help develop those standards.  If you’re good at urban operations, work on that.  It also helps create the foundation for regional training facilities, and creates a plug and play model – you can be trained the same way by the same people.”

“If we all work to a standard, we’re all going to work the same -and we can work together seamlessly,” points out Kevin O’Malley.

Challenges and Changes

Wall says that as a department, the FDNY drone team is always working to overcome complacency.  “You can go so long without an incident that you get a false sense of security,” he says.  “You can become convinced that you’re doing everything right.”  Wall points out that departments have to constantly look at their procedures to ensure that they are working safely and efficiently.

Manpower is always a challenge – there is never enough.  Even at the FDNY, it can be challenging to have people available where they are needed.  In the future, FDNY sees the possibility of having drone stations on boats in the summer, where they already place resources; or throughout the city.

Finally, says Mike Wall, Self Certification is a challenge that departments should consider carefully. “I hate it,” he says. “Self certification opens up your department to a lot of liability issues.  If a UAS incident occurs, we may have to prove that we not only met but exceeded the FAA standards – and that may be a very difficult thing to do.”

The FDNY drone program was conceived back in 2014 when a civilian flying a Phantom showed up to a fire and provided footage to the responders.  Despite the challenges inherent in operating a drone program in NYC,  FDNY has worked through the regulations, the politics and the technology to make it happen.  “When we first started, we’d tell people the drones had arrived and they’d tell us to get the toys out of there,”says Mike Wall. “Now, it’s ‘where’s my drone?’  We just started flying – when we delivered the data, it was the data that sold members on the drones.”

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Miriam McNabbMiriam McNabb

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry.  Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.

TWITTER:@spaldingbarker

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