Fire Department, UT engineering school hope to improve fire, water rescue operations with new agreement

Forrest Milburn

The Austin Fire Department entered into a mutually beneficial agreement with UT’s engineering school in the hopes of learning how to better use robotics, particularly unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in responding to fire and water rescue operations.

On Thursday, Austin City Council members approved the interlocal agreement between the Austin Fire Department and the Cockrell School of Engineering, establishing a partnership between the department officials and the school’s award-winning UAV Team, which is comprised of about 30 undergraduates from the school of engineering who compete annually in aerial robotics competitions.

“In order for the fire department to participate in any of our demonstrations, they have to have the approval of the city council,” said Armand Chaput, an aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics lecturer. “As an educational institution, we have the objectives of wanting students to work on interesting projects that benefit the city and the state, and that’s what this is.”

The UAV team held a demonstration on Wednesday where students were able to launch UAVs in a simulated emergency response situation. The fire department was unable to participate in the demonstration because officials felt waiting until the council had decided on a motion would be more appropriate, according to Austin Assistant Fire Chief Richard Davis.

Now that the ordinance has been approved, fire department officials will be able to participate in any demonstrations and will grade UAV team members on their final projects, Chaput said.

While the UAV Team and the School of Engineering get to utilize the experiences and tools of the fire department, the city will also learn how to better react to emergencies that require fire and water rescue.

“Using robotic technology may help the city expand and enhance its response to flooding, wildfires, and other emergency situations when the lives and property of Austinites are at risk,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who represents UT in District 9.

Aerospace engineering senior James Bell, who serves as the systems engineer on the UAV Team, said the UAVs are beneficial because they allow the city to look at ways of improving its own UAV technologies.

“In the case of flooding, it’s even more important to get overhead pictures because you can’t just walk through a flood,” Bell said. “You’re able to look at places that you weren’t able to look at before, find
potential problems before they occur, as well as find people who’ve been stranded.”

Currently, the city has a Robotic Emergency Deployment team with UAVs in place and is hoping to learn how to better equip them through simulations with the UAV team. 

According to the agreement, all resources provided by the city are directly limited to those of the fire department and resources from UT are similarly limited to the School of Engineering. 

In August 2014, council members approved a similar item dealing with aerial robotics that authorized an interlocal agreement between Austin and Texas A&M University, leading to a four-year collaboration on the practicality of UAVs and other robotics during emergency response situations. 

In addition to the similar 2014 agreement, Davis said the newly approved ordinance will help the city in the long-term by improving its response rate and speed of damage assessments during emergency situations.

“The proof of the concept of using UAVs is already there,” Davis said. “It’s just our job to perfect it and use it in a realm of emergency management, and that’s what we’re doing.”