History was made at the Port of Miami, Fla., this past Saturday, Feb. 18, as a fleet of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), consisting of drones and miniature aerostats, was used to provide live, situational awareness at a joint exercise between Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFD), the U.S. Army and other agencies.
The combined forces were assigned the mission to mobilize and deploy to assess and/or mitigate a suspected weapon of mass destruction.
The maritime hazardous materials drill featured the MDFD special operations division and hazardous material teams working alongside reserve soldiers assigned to the Orlando-based 329th chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear company (reconnaissance and surveillance), supported by the Army Reserve’s 469th ground ambulance company from Wichita, Kan., and the Florida National Guard’s civil support team.
To evaluate the potential of UAS in providing live, situational awareness in incidents, MDFD requested support from Airborne Response, a Miami-based drone services and consulting firm. The objective for the UAS was to provide a constant video feed of the exercise into MDFD’s mobile command center where the incident command staff and exercise control staff would be stationed.
To accomplish the goal, Airborne Response used a combination of three different remote pilot and observer flight teams each flying separate DJI drones – including the Inspire 2, Matrice 100, Phantom 4 Pro and Mavic Pro – at varying times. The flight schedule allowed for a continuous rotation of pilots and aircraft over the more than six-hour duration of the exercise.
Airborne Response also had access to a secret UAS weapon that had never before been tested in a live exercise – a new version of an ALTA SmartBalloon system carrying specially customized DJI equipment and payload.
“The new SmartBalloon worked almost flawlessly,” says Candido Hernandez, chief engineer for Altametry, a Miami-based firm that developed and manufactured each patented ALTA SmartBalloon system. “The DJI gimbal and camera system handled the wind gusts much better than we anticipated.”
Hernandez says the DJI equipment on the SmartBalloon included a Zenmuse Z3 camera system, N3 flight controller and Lightbridge 2 video transmission system – all powered by a single DJI Matrice battery, which lasted for the full duration of the exercise.
“This was a tremendous opportunity to highlight the emerging potential of unmanned aircraft systems for emergency response,” says Christopher Todd, president and founder of Airborne Response. “Our primary tasking was to help increase the operational intelligence coming in to the command team as the exercise evolved. Our flight teams were able to capture and stream video perspectives that would have otherwise have been unavailable.”
This exercise was just the first step toward developing a robust UAS solution to help first responders, emergency managers and military personnel establish more comprehensive situation awareness for a wide variety of mission sets, according to Todd.
“Most drones are limited to a finite amount of flight time by their on-board battery packs,” he explains. “This leaves potential coverage gaps when working to provide constant overwatch. The ALTA SmartBalloon system allowed us to have a continuous eye in the sky for the duration of the exercise. The aerostat provided a live video of the wide view, while the drones were able to maneuver as needed to capture unique angles and up-close live stream perspectives of each exercise evolution.”
Col. Mike Vail, chief of the homeland operations division for the Army Reserve, adds, “As a federal response partner, the Army Reserve seeks training events with local, state and federal agencies to better hone our skills and to further develop symbiotic training relationships. We want both the soldiers and our firefighters to benefit from the training. We both have something in common: We serve the communities we live in and protect those in need during an emergency or incident where lives are in danger.”
Maholi Hernández is marketing communications manager at Airborne Response.