Laurel Air One takes to the sky

Story and photos
Outlook staff writer

As society moves into a more technologically advanced future of driverless cars, artificial intelligence and un-manned military-grade and civilian drones, the success of many municipalities service departments depends upon their stance on autonomous navigation. What can drones do to help and/or assist in emergency departments? What extra level of safety can these unmanned drones provide?
More than you could imagine.
The Laurel Volunteer Fire Department invested $2,200 dollarsinto its first drone. The DJI Phantom 3 Professional with a 4k ultra-high-definition camera is nicknamed Laurel Air One or LAO for short. It was paid for by through the LVFD operating budget.
Travis Nagel, Operations Captain and Communications Coordinator for the LVFD, has a very optimistic view of the drone’s future capabilities and uses.
“It enables us to see the edges of the fires and perform building inspections,” he said. “The aspect of not putting firemen in harm’s way, to instead send in a little drone first [is safer].”
LAO will provide the department with data they have never had before. And, not just in relation to fires. The drone is equipped with a mounted camera similar to Hal’s all-seeing eye from the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but without the ability to co-opt control. The camera is mounted on a full-motion three-axis gimbal. The image transmitted from the sky-borne drone is as clear and as stable as if it were captured from a completely stable environment instead of from turbulent air. The drones’s six-axis gyroscope enables stable flight, much like a simpler gyroscope allows the automatic rotation of a cell phone.
The actual drone resembles a bee or other insect in flight. The camera on the body doesn’t appear to be moving when observed closely, yet the wings are moving rapidly. They move too fast to even suggest anything other than a smear of colors from the propellers to the naked eye.
LAO has four propellers. Each is all white except for a few red stripes, the insignia of the fire department. The UHD camera is mounted on the bottom of the drone and transmits real-time high-definition video to the controller on the ground.
The drone can be manned entirely by one trained operator. A smart phone is inserted into the top of the controller, similar to how one fits into a virtual reality helmet. It uses two joy sticks and the operator can control and observe everything the drone captures from up to two miles away through a live feed. Even when reaching speeds upwards of 30 mph the images projected are crystal clear.
The drone can stay in the sky for up to 30 minutes. And, if the battery is gets low, or the craft goes out-of-range the drone simply navigates itself back to home base.
The Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for drones limit their vertical flight path to no higher than 500 feet so as to not interfere with aircrafts. From 400 feet the drone can perform reconnaissance of wild land fires when and where air support is not available. LAO can also enter buildings independently, as well allow visual inspections to the outside of buildings giving rescuers a bird’s eye view of a fire or structural damage. It can provide responders with information on layout, scope and fire borders. Eventually the drone will be equipped with thermal imaging and have the ability to locate hot spots in fires. Likewise it will be able to pinpoint people thrown from vehicle crashes that first responders can’t initially see enabling faster search and rescue.
The drone will also assist other city departments. Eventually, building inspections will be performed remotely; the machines will even be able to assist in searches for lost children by giving responders different advantage points over trees and buildings.
“Having a bird eye’s view is always good,” said Nagel.
As more of Nagel’s colleagues learn to fly and operate it, the closer the department is to sending LAO on it’s maiden voyage as a search and rescue tool. In the meantime, drone’s are making life safer and easier for many humans and will remain useful, at least until artificial intelligence like that imagined in Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction film becomes the new reality.


Upcoming Events

Wednesday, July 17, 2019
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Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., check for more info. Find them on Facebook . Email them to find out meeting time and to join: The club will have a meeting or volunteer activity. Meeting location is Sid's East Side Bar & Grill on first and third Wednesdays of each month. Members and guests eat free.  Volunteer activity on the second Wednesday of each month. Check their facebook page for updates.  Every fourth Wednesday is for a club social activity. 
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Wednesday, July 24, 2019
10 a.m., Laurel Public Library, 720 West Third Street, Laurel, 628-4961


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