Drones that can save lives

First Spanish businessman to develop idea says technology will help fight fires

A quadcopter flown remotely. / GETTY IMAGES

Francisco Gayá was glued to the television screen in the summer of 2006, watching the constant news reports about forest fires.

"So much misfortune had to trigger a call to action," he says by way of explanation for what he did next. A businessman who used to specialize in the media industry, and an amateur pilot on the side, Gayá decided to set up Flightech Systems, the first Spanish company to make a drone -- an unmanned aerial vehicle -- capable of monitoring this type of emergencies.

Gayá, a native of Madrid, called up 21 friends to tell them about his business idea. Seventeen of them said yes. Since then, he has attracted 27 shareholders who contributed a total of nine million euros to get the project off the ground.

Gathering dangerous data


The city of Madrid is considering the use of drones for emergencies, and will soon decide whether to include the cost of hiring the services from a specialized company in the 2015 budget.

The project, called SOS-Drone, improves the speed and quality of the information that gets relayed to workers and decision-makers during an emergency situation. For instance, by delivering images in real time, it allows firefighters to see how a forest fire is developing or whether there are people in danger at specific locations.

In theory, the drones will be tested out during 2014 to establish how they would need to be adapted to fit the needs of the Spanish capital. If the technology is adopted, it will be used not just by firefighters but also by the municipal police and the SAMUR-Civil Protection emergency services.

The image transmission system can relay information in unfavorable situations involving very high temperatures, smoke, pollutants or toxic substances. The data can be captured by video cameras and by sensors that detect gases and nuclear, biological, radioactive and chemical substances.

"Their use provides the necessary information for decision-making while minimizing costs and risk to humans," said Madrid Mayor Ana Botella during a drone exhibition at Casa de Campo earlier this month.

In the meantime, the city is going to approve a contract to overhaul 159 vehicles and firefighter containers, representing an investment of around 90 million euros. The new equipment will include a firefighter truck with a 54-meter ladder.

The drone, a model called Altea Eko, weighs 80 kilos, can reach speeds of 120 km/h and has a flying autonomy of four-and-a-half hours. But it cannot roam any further than 100 kilometers from its home base.

Even getting to this point was not easy.

"We broke and crashed many prototypes before finding the best option," explains Gayá. Although the drones have not begun operating yet, so far this is the only model with a license plate from the State Security Agency, which is a requirement for flying.

Although the company is headquartered in Madrid, its eight drones are kept in a warehouse in Alicante, which is also home to the research and development team. "In total there are 28 people, of whom 21 have a technical background," says the founder and president. Most of them are aeronautical engineers, telecoms engineers and physicists.

Gayá insists that the drones are easy to operate, but not fit for just anybody.

"You need to make a flight plan ahead of time, and for distance flying you need to have a pilot's license. Otherwise it would become a threat to security and crash," he points out.

To cover worst-case scenarios, the aircraft have parachutes that open up in the event of a free fall. And if any problem with the drone is detected, or if the radio signal is lost or a hacking attempt detected, the aerial vehicles automatically make a beeline for home base.

The idea is to offer them to regional governments for fire-fighting work and assistance with other types of natural disasters, but the company is also thinking of approaching law enforcement agencies to see if they would be interested in drones' ability to gather information.

"It could be practical to monitor borders more efficiently," Gayá notes. "The high-definition images can even be viewed on a iPad if one wishes." Then he adds as an afterthought: "They are not meant to be weaponized planes or attack aircraft; they're for civilian use."

The next step for the Altea Eko is finding new markets in Latin America. "We are especially interested in Latin America because they have large forest expanses and farming estates. With a drone, monitoring is more intensive and complete."

Jeff Bezos' latest proposal for delivering Amazon packages via drones makes Gayá blush: "I love science fiction just as much as the next guy, really. He has run a splendid campaign for his company, but it's not for real. Those [drones] are like the ones I use with my grandchildren at [Madrid's] Juan Carlos I park. Yes, they are a lot of fun. But jokes aside, what he is proposing is dangerous."

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