The Pierce Situational Awareness System by Fotokite is available for new fire vehicles, as a custom retrofit, or in a standalone Pelican case configuration for smaller vehicles. Image: Fotokite

Fotokite partners with Pierce Manufacturing to equip firetrucks with tethered drones

Emergency response Equipment & systems

Fotokite, a startup founded in Switzerland in 2014 with offices in Zurich and Syracuse, New York, has partnered with Pierce Manufacturing Inc., a top supplier of firetrucks in North America, to integrate an autonomous tethered “kite” drone in emergency vehicles to help provide firefighters with situational awareness.

Equipped with two cameras — one low-light visual, one thermal — the Pierce Situational Awareness System by Fotokite (which will be marketed outside the US as SIGMA) is a tethered six-rotor c-drone in a cradle which can be mounted by Pierce into any fire vehicle, including non-Pierce vehicles such as fire chiefs’ sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). For vehicles without room to mount the standard sliding drawer configuration, a Pelican case standalone version is available; all it needs is a power connection to the host vehicle. No pilot or license is necessary; a Fotokite software application, Fotokite LIVE, allows any firefighter to launch or retrieve the drone with a touch of a tablet or computer screen button with a slider for the desired altitude up to 150 ft (46m), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ceiling for tethered drones (“Public Actively Tethered UAS”) which just came into effect last week.

Connectivity to the software is through WiFi or Ethernet for wireless-denied environments. The thin but extremely strong tether provides power and secure data/video link to the drone, which has a solid carbon fiber frame and can continued controlled flight with only five rotors operating. The tether allows 24+ hours of flight; it is never necessary to change batteries as there aren’t any (except for backup power for both the ground station cradle and the drone). The c-drone is IP55 rated to fly in rain, snow, and windy conditions. It is possible to relay the video to a command post. Bright running lights allow the c-drone to easily be seen at night.

Pierce Manufacturing, which is a unit of Oshkosh Corp., has an extensive dealer network and provides a recommended maintenance schedule for components like the tether, motors, and propellers. Several major North American cities are using the system, including one fire department which has deployed multiple units for major incidents.

Reached by telephone today at the FDIC (Fire Department Instructors Conference) International show in Indianapolis, Indiana, Christopher McCall, CEO of Fotokite, said:

The Pierce Situational Awareness System by Fotokite is available today for fire departments and emergency responders across North America. Our system can be installed in any emergency vehicle. It is pilotless and requires no licenses, waivers, or training to use in the US due to the FAA tethered UAS rules which just came into effect. This is a completely new product category which allows first responders to quickly gain aerial situational awareness; we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from Fire Chiefs where the system is already in use and the Pierce dealer network means any fire department can get the installation and maintenance they require.

Fotokite was the top prize winner in last year’s Genius NY startup competition and its Syracuse, New York base in the US has helped the Swiss company develop its partnership with Pierce Manufacturing. See our interview last year with Chris McCall.