As firefighters braved the smoke and flames from the ground and rooftops, a small object soared above their heads Wednesday morning, trying to assist their efforts as a five-alarm fire ripped through a Santa Clara, California, strip mall.
The drone was sent up by the Santa Clara Fire Department volunteers to try to pinpoint how to best fight the blaze, which affected about a dozen small shops and restaurants in the Koreatown mall.
The use of drones by fire departments and police agencies has grown across the country from Connecticut to Spokane, Washington, though there are some controversies and hurdles surrounding their use.
"It's not a perfect application for every fire," Santa Clara Fire Chief Bill Kelly told NBC Bay Area. "But a view from that vantage point helps us figure out tactical methods, like where to put the hose stream."
Kelly said the quality of the hobbyist drone isn't all that great, and the video doesn't provide deep thermal images. "But it was useful today," he said. "It gives you a bird's eye view."
Santa Clara police began using an amateur drone a year ago, and nearby Menlo Park has been using them, too. Coincidentally, Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman announced on Wednesday that his fire agency was the first in Northern California to be authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones. His department will be using three drones: the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, the DJI Inspire One and the DJI Phantom 4 that use thermal imaging, visual tracking of moving objects, collision avoidance and other high-tech features. It took the Menlo Park Fire Department more than two years to be approved through an "onerous" procedural process, Schapelhouman said.
There are basically two types of drones — ones used by hobbyists and ones used by the military, explained CalFire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff. And there are a few types in between, including commercial-style drones used for crop spraying and making movies.
CalFire does not own either of the types, she said. Rather, the state agency borrows U.S. Forest Service-owned, military-grade drones that can fly above 10,000 feet to document how large fires have spread, find hot spots and survey damage. The California National Guard in 2013 operated the MQ-1 "Predator" over the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park to stream real-time video down to the command post.
At this point, CalFire is doing some research into whether a non-military-grade drone, which flies more directly over the scene, would be of practical use, Tolmachoff said, noting their use is gaining in popularity with local departments, such as Santa Clara.
While the images could be helpful, Tolmachoff said, there are challenges with using drones, too. The small aircraft can get in the way of large firefighting helicopters dousing the fires with buckets of water.
For example, a private drone hindered CalFire efforts in June 2014 as firefighters were fighting a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and a hobby drone prevented CalFire from launching air tankers during the San Bernardino wildfire last July.
Coordinating between the drone and the helicopter — so that they don't crash into each other — would be a large effort. "One of those drones could bring down a chopper," Tolmachoff said.
Any kind of technology has advantages and disadvantages, said DroneLife.com editor-in-chief Frank Schroth, who nevertheless added that he is a staunch drone advocate.
Flying drones takes skill and practice, he said, and shouldn't be taken lightly, just as a driver wouldn't get behind the wheel without lessons and a license.
Schroth compared drones today to smart phones 15 years ago - there is a lot of room for growth and improvement.
"There is plenty of room for abuse," he said. "But as with anything, it has the potential to do a lot of good."