Menlo Park fire district gets OK from FAA to operate drone

Device to help observe fire, other emergency situations from the air

It's taken almost two years, but the Menlo Park Fire Protection District is now authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate a portable drone to help in observing a fire or other emergency situation from the air.

The FAA issued the fire district a certificate to operate its drone on May 18, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said in a statement.

The district is in possession of one drone donated by manufacturer DJI (based in Shenzhen, China, according to the DJI website), and plans to buy two more from DJI, Schapelhouman said.

The district's 2016-17 budget has allocated $25,000 for drone operations, Schapelhouman said, including equipment and the training of six teams of two -- a pilot and an observer.

The donated drone, a model DJI Phantom 2 Vision, can carry a camera and download images of the scene to firefighters' tablet computers and/or smartphones. While it can stay airborne for just 25 minutes, the key is the first 10 to 20 minutes, a period in which many fires are knocked down, Schapelhouman said.

The other two drones the district is considering -- a DJI Inspire One and a DJI Phantom 4 -- would "possess unique capabilities that will expand our operational profile," Schapelhouman said. Those capabilities include a thermal-imaging camera, visual tracking of moving objects, collision avoidance and a capacity to carry a payload of up to 6 pounds, he said.

If another agency were to borrow a fire district drone -- a law enforcement agency, for example, for an active-shooter or hostage situation -- a fire district team would accompany the drone and operate it on the scene, Schapelhouman has said.

While the videos from the fire district's drone will, in general, be public information, a law enforcement agency can challenge or override that policy, Schapelhouman said. Fires of suspicious origin can become crime scenes, for example, he said.

The Menlo Park district has refused to help law enforcement agencies in the past. The district has keys to many buildings, including apartment buildings, and on occasion, police have asked for them, Schapelhouman said. With few exceptions, they're refused, he added.

"We see how it could change or taint our reputation in the community," Schapelhouman said. "We're kind of the non-punitive entity, if you know what I mean."

If a drone were to overfly a patch of marijuana, however, police would be told, he said.

"It's not as if we're going to turn a blind eye too blatant criminal activity," he said. "We're not going to do that."

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Like this comment
Posted by juan olive
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 27, 2016 at 10:56 am

Talk about big brother. This is Huge Brother. Why can't we "The Public" use drones to see police officer shootings? No specific ones, there have just been too many witnessed. How many have not been witnessed? I can only imagine.
Don't get me wrong, I have obeyed the law all my life and I used to respect the law more then now. And the reason I don't, is because of the cover ups, (The Blue Wall) And it's usually never the officers fault.
Welcome Huge Brother.

Like this comment
Posted by Hermia
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 27, 2016 at 11:04 am

Having a patch of marijuana growing in your yard is *not* blatant criminal activity, though.
I know all our private outdoor space is being redefined as public, now that anyone can build
a monster house or fly a drone over it, but
lots of people have medical authorization, which includes growing a few plants.
Will calling in police raids on legit MMJ patients serve the public interest?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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