In a bid to help make potentially life-saving decisions, West Midlands firefighters are the latest emergency service to use a new unmanned spy drone. Jon Excell reports

Later this month the West Midlands Fire Service will take delivery of a battery-powered, unmanned spy drone that can hover quietly, perform a tight turn and take off from an area the size of a dustbin lid.

The service plans to use the diminutive vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) craft, the MD4-200, to get a bird’s eye view of buildings that are on fire and help co-ordinate the response to major incidents, such as motorway accidents. The Environment Agency, as well as police forces including Hertfordshire, Dorset, Cheshire and the Met, are also said to be interested in trialling the device.

The aircraft is the brainchild of German engineer Udo Juerss, a former Ford development engineer who left the car giant to set up his own company, Microdrones, four years ago.

Made entirely from carbon fibre reinforced plastics, the vehicle weighs 900g and can carry a payload — usually a digital camera — of up to 200g. Able to fly for 20 minutes at a speed of around 10m/s, the craft has flown at altitudes of almost 6,000ft (1,800m). However, civil aviation regulations are likely to limit its operating altitudes to around 800ft.

The vehicle’s rotors are driven by four synchronised, brushless motors, which give the drone performance characteristics comparable with a helicopter. During operation, an array of onboard accelerometers, gyroscopes, and sensors measure air pressure, humidity, and temperature and feed back valuable flight information to a base station on the ground.

Juerss said the system is so easy to use that it can be taken out of the box and flown by a novice within a few minutes. He added that the vehicle’s light weight also makes it exceptionally safe, and if a user’s finger happens to get in the way of one of the 7g flexible rotor blades it is highly unlikely to cause any injury.

To operate the craft users can choose from three different guidance modes. At its simplest level it can be operated by radio control, with GPS holding it in position if the user does nothing. It can also receive its commands from a computer via a base station on the ground. But perhaps most excitingly, and this is where it really begins to compete with the considerably pricier military UAV systems, it is also capable of autonomous navigation via waypoint.

Firefighters will be able to fly their drone, called ISIS, around fires to provide live video footage

Juerss explained that a user will simply make a flight plan using either google maps or a proprietary piece of software and the craft will carry out the route from take-off to landing without any input from a pilot. He said that this makes the system ideal for carrying out routine patrols of sensitive areas, and confirmed that the system is already being used to patrol alongside runways at one of the UK’s major airports.

The MD4-200 was initially developed for the German military, which along with US special forces remains a major customer. But Juerss spotted its potential for a variety of other applications. He said that the civil market is potentially very lucrative, with a number of companies interested in using it for aerial land inspections, aerial mapping that gets around the problem of clouds and even archaeological investigations.

One of the big advantages over existing military systems is undoubtedly the cost. Juerss explained that a drone from a company like Honeywell would, if civilians were allowed to buy it, cost around £70,000 (€100,000). ‘we are at a fraction of this cost, and with autonomous waypoint navigation have even more capabilities,’ he said.

The other big selling point is its almost silent operation. According to Juerss you would struggle to hear the system even from 10m away. As well as making it ideal for covert operations, this has also made it attractive to biologists who can use it to survey bird colonies without disturbing them.

The system is being sold in the UK by Stoke electronics firm MWPower, which as the supplier of generators for mobile police applications and the company behind the first automatic number plate recognition system (ANPRS) and CCTV vehicles, was ideally placed to introduce the technology to the emergency services.

The company puts them out on a lease-purchase basis at around £1,000 a month or will sell them for between £25-30,000. With helicopters costing around £1,600 an hour to run, MWPower’s business development manager Alistair Fox said it’s no surprise the system is proving so popular.

MW Power is not simply a re-seller, and Fox explained that the company has been working closely with customers on the development of special payloads for specific applications. He ruled out the notion of kitting out the drone with weapons, but said the company has been working with Merseyside police on the development of a system that would enable the drone to move up noiselessly behind criminals and spray them a forensic marking substance called Smartwater. Fox added that he has even been in discussions with people about equipping drones with polonium detectors and phone jammers.

But according to Fox, while the police are excited about the technology, it’s arguably even more appropriate for the fire service, and while West Midlands will be the first fire authority in Europe to embrace the system, it’s unlikely to be the last.

The service is hoping to start using the drone, which it has named ISIS (Incident Support Imaging System) within the next couple of months. According to a spokesman it will be deployed at major incidents to give incident commanders a real-time birds’ eye view about what they are facing and where resources are needed.

They will be able to fly the drone around fires to provide live video footage or high-quality stills which will then be viewed in the system’s base station or via the display screens on the command support vehicle.

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Vij Randeniya said it will help incident commanders make potentially life-saving decisions in a range of situations. ‘For example, in floods it can be used to locate stranded people and also to identify how widespread the problem is. This sort of information can otherwise only be obtained by people on the ground, which can take time and place our staff at additional risk.’

Meanwhile, Juerss and his team are preparing to launch a more advanced version of the technology — the MD4 1000. Expected to be available around the beginning of next year this considerably larger vehicle has a payload capacity of 1kg and is able to stay aloft for almost an hour

Juerss said he has already taken orders for the new system from a number of customers. Illustrating the true breadth of application, one of these is a Hollywood film studio which is interested in carrying HDTV camcorders to film flight scenes.

Visit this website to see an assortment of films showing the technology in action: