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A new technology integrates an autonomous tethered “kite” drone in emergency vehicles to help provide firefighters with situational awareness. In fact, this is a completely new product category which allows first responders to quickly gain aerial situational awareness.

The development is the result of a collaboration between the startup Fotokite and Pierce Manufacturing, a supplier of firetrucks.

Equipped with two cameras — one low-light visual, one thermal — the Pierce Situational Awareness System by Fotokite (SIGMA) is a tethered six-rotor c-drone in a cradle which can be mounted into any fire vehicle, including non-Pierce vehicles.

The two cameras provide simultaneous thermal and regular video streams. The custom integrated camera payload is actively stabilized in 3 axes to ensure maximum situational awareness and operational flexibility throughout deployment, according to the company website.

For vehicles without room to mount the standard sliding drawer configuration, a Pelican case standalone version is available; all it needs is a power connection to the host vehicle. No pilot or license is necessary; a Fotokite software application, Fotokite LIVE, allows any firefighter to launch or retrieve the drone with a touch of a tablet or computer screen button with a slider for the desired altitude up to 150 ft (46m), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ceiling for tethered drones (“Public Actively Tethered UAS”) which just came into effect last week.


Connectivity to the software is through WiFi or Ethernet for wireless-denied environments. The thin but extremely strong tether provides power and secure data/video link to the drone, which has a solid carbon fiber frame and can continue controlled flight with only five rotors operating.

The tether allows 24+ hours of flight; it is never necessary to change batteries as there aren’t any (except for backup power for both the ground station cradle and the drone).

Christopher McCall, CEO of Fotokite, said that the Pierce Situational Awareness System is available today for fire departments and emergency responders across North America. It can be installed in any emergency vehicle. It is pilotless and requires no licenses, waivers, or training to use in the US.

The system consists of the Ground Station and the Kite. A tablet computer runs Fotokite LIVE and receives the thermal and low light video streams, giving teams actionable information throughout their mission.