Port Coquitlam drone grant leads to new Fire and Emergency Services capabilities

Port Coquitlam drone grant leads to new Fire and Emergency Services capabilities

By Scott Simmie


There’s no question that drones have become an essential part of the toolkit for First Responders.

Drones have proven themselves in Search and Rescue operations (including at night), for Situational Awareness in firefighting and disaster response, and as important tools in accident documentation that can allow police to more rapidly clear the scene and get traffic moving quickly again.

Now, the city of Port Coquitlam’s Fire and Emergency Services department has upped its capabilities thanks to two new drones and training – the result of a $30,000 grant from the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM). The money was earmarked as “Community Emergency Preparedness Funding.”

Below: An image from Port Coquitlam’s Fire and Emergency Services web page

Port Coquitlam Drone Grant



Drones have proven particularly useful tools to firefighters. They not only provide the Big Picture from above, but drones with thermal sensors can see beyond the visible flames – identifying other hotspots not visible to the naked eye. A section of roof that might appear fine could, in fact, be close to combustion.

On May 6, 2019, drones played a huge role at one of the worst fires in the City of Victoria’s history. What would come to be known as the Pandora Street Fire would ravage an historical buiding and take a week to fully extinguish. On the morning it broke out, there was so much roiling brown smoke that firefighters couldn’t even see where the flames were. They immediately put an InDro drone, equipped with thermal sensors, in the air.

“If you’ve ever been to one of these big fires, the smoke is thick and completely impenetrable,” explained InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece in this story.

“You’re pointing the hose at where you think the fire is. Now you switch to thermal and it basically cuts the smoke – the smoke disappears. Now you see the heat coming up off the fire. You can actually follow it down through the different radiometric temperature colours to where the real core of the fire is.”

The image below was taken at the Pandora Street Fire and is courtesy the City of Victoria’s Fire Department. You can see, thanks to thermal, where the hottest spots are. It’s a clear example of how important an airborne thermal sensor is:


Pandora Street Fire FLIR thermal drone



The drones, purchased via InDro Robotics, are two DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise Thermal units. The camera provides up to a 56x combined optical/digital zoom, and the thermal sensor has 640 x 512 resolution. With flight times of up to 45 minutes, the pair of drones can be easily rotated for continuous situational awareness. The controller allows to displaying both visual and thermal imagery side-by-side.

“This is a great example of our city using creative technology tools to better serve and protect our community, residents and keeping our firefighters safe,” said Mayor Brad West in this news release

“Providing immediate access to real-time video footage, helps our firefighters make better on-scene decisions. We are grateful to the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) for providing us with this grant that will positively impact our community.”



The grant also provides for training of those who will operate the drones – as well as to develop planning exercise scenarios for the City’s Emergency Operations Centre. Five Fire Department pilots currently hold their Transport Canada Advanced RPAS Certificates, and additional training with InDro Robotics will take place to in order to fully exploit the capabilities of the thermal drones and interpret the data.

The news release states that drones will be able to provide real-time information via live-streaming to the City’s Emergency Operations Center during incidents:

“A review of the current EOC practices, used to obtain information, suggests that more timely and reliable information can be obtained through the use of technology, such as drones. Using a drone to survey the site of an incident can reduce the risk of injury to first responders as well as give crucial information to the incident commander for planning response activities which can be livestreamed to the EOC.”


It goes on to outline some of the many benefits of drone use, including:

  • “Provides fast and efficient reconnaissance of the incident from a safe distance prior to sending first responders in to perform search and rescue operations;
  • “The use of drone mounted thermal imaging cameras assist first responders in identifying heat signatures of trapped or injured civilians who may not be easily seen or heard;
  • “Support City staff in pre-disaster planning efforts, e.g. geographic surveys and inspections of bridges, dams, and diking systems; and
  • “Provides staff with updated, accurate, high definition images for the City’s data collection.”

Councillor Steve Darling, the City Council’s designate for community safety matters, is quoted outlining why these drones are an important addition:

“The drone(s) will be used to support fire ground operations, relaying important information regarding fire growth and heat. This will also increase firefighter safety, allowing the department to keep an eye on firefighters working in hazardous areas.”

Below: A DJI video outlining the features of its Mavic 3 Enterprise drones




It’s been less than a decade since DJI released the original Phantom, which required a separate GoPro and was not capable of video streaming unless you really wanted to buy hobby parts and hack the camera to transmit. Drones were anomalies then, largely purchased by hobbyists.

But it wasn’t long before First Responders started seeing the potential. Some early adopters embraced the emerging technology, and it wasn’t long before word started to spread. It’s now routine, at pretty much any drone or First Responders convention, for presentations to be made showing real-world examples of how useful – critical, even – drones have become.

“The growth of drone technology has truly been exponential – and so have the use-cases,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece.

“We’ve long been involved with drone training with Port Coquitlam Fire, and applaud the Union of British Columbia Municipalities for this forward-thinking grant. We look forward to hearing about the many ways these drones benefit Port Coquitlam Fire and the City’s Emergency Operations Centre.”

InDro has, for many years, trained First Responders and supplied specialized drones for their work. If your local First Responders would like to learn more about the capabilities of InDro drones or ground robots – including training at the forthcoming Area X.O advanced drone and ground robot facility in Ottawa – feel free to contact us here



The amazing, unusual robots of Squishy Robotics

The amazing, unusual robots of Squishy Robotics

By Scott Simmie, InDro Robotics


When we think of robots, a few different images can come to mind.

You might envision something like Spot, the dog-like ground robot built by Boston Dynamics. You might also think of an Uncrewed Ground Vehicle, or UGV, such as the AgileX Scout 2.0. You might even think of a walking, talking machine from some sci-fi film. And sure, they’re all robots. For that matter, even a Roomba vacuum cleaner is a robot.

Before we hop in further, we’d like to drop in this definition, from Brittanica.com:

“any automatically operated machine that replaces human effort, though it may not resemble human beings in appearance or perform functions in a humanlike manner. By extension, robotics is the engineering discipline dealing with the design, construction, and operation of robots.”

Robots can come in unexpected shapes and sizes

Today, we’re going to look at a very atypical robot that really intrigues us. It’s made by a US company called Squishy Robotics. Why Squishy? Well, it’s because of the form factor of these unique devices. They are, actually, squishy. And that form factor allows Squishy’s robots to do things that others cannot.

Let’s take a look at an introductory video. It gives a great high-level overview of what the product does, and why it’s built the way it is: 

Use-case scenarios

As you likely noted in the video, these robots can be dropped from significant heights without damage. So in situations where you can’t easily get a drone to the ground, they can be deployed simply by dropping them from the air. Squishy has done tests dropping from up to 1,000′ from fixed-wing crewed aircraft and helicopters. (In North America, drones are generally limited to 400′ Above Ground Level).

As the Squishy website explains, “We provide sensor robots that can be air-deployed into hazardous areas to furnish persistent, ground-level, real-time data for your operations.”

Static or mobile

The company has two different flavours of Squishy Robots. One version is static, and simply reports back from a stationary position after it’s been dropped (or tossed). There’s also a version that can move itself using a rolling motion. Here’s CEO and Co-Founder Dr. Alice Agogino:

We have both a Stationary Robot and a Mobile Robot. Our Stationary Robot is currently being used by several pilot partners,” she says. “Of course, some situations require mobility, but our customer discovery determined that deploying our stationary tensegrity sensor unit (either by drone or by tossing) provided an ideal solution to improve the efficiency and increase the safety of emergency responders and the public. The robot’s six camera and sensor could provide—and continuously update—the immediate situational awareness that emergency personnel need to respond to a crisis.”

And these little devices do a lot. We’ve borrowed, with permission, this graphic from the Squishy Robotics website. It helps to explain what its robots do:


Squishy Robotics Feature

There are multiple use-cases for such a device. Imagine, for example, there’s been a dangerous gas leak. One of the Squishy Robots comes equipped with a sensor that can ‘sniff’ the levels of four different gases: CO, H2S, LEL, O2. That same robot has six cameras for full 360° coverage and a GPS. Because it creates its own mesh network, data can be shared with its operator even in situations where a cellular network is down.

We asked Dr. Agogino what she feels differentiates the company’s products from other robots.

“A key differentiator is that our air-deployed robots can get to places that ground robots cannot easily access,” she says.

“We can fly over rivers or wreckage and debris from natural disasters, for example. Some ground robots can manage travel around such obstacles, but our tensegrity robots can get there faster and send data sooner than a ground-based robot. Our robots can also be deployed by humans—someone can easily throw or toss one of our lightweight robots over a fence or a rescuer could drop them down a mineshaft or into a cave. Those actions aren’t possible with a heavy robot with so many breakable components.”

In an earthquake scenario, a Squishy Robot could be tossed into a building at risk of collapse. It would provide eyes on the ground, be able to sniff for dangerous gases, and – depending on the model – potentially move by rolling around. It’s pretty easy to see the utility here, and how such a device would aid First Responders in gathering data before sending people inside.

How did Squishy Robotics begin?

Good question. And the answer is found on the company’s website.

“Squishy Robotics is a spinoff of research at UC Berkeley with NASA to develop planetary probes for space exploration. The probe could orbit a planet and drop to the surface and survive to provide scientific monitoring. Squishy Robotics has commercialized this technology for a range of applications on planet Earth: disaster response, military applications, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and package delivery.”

We can certainly envision situations where these devices could be put to good use in the Public Safety, Industrial/Enterprise, and even Military sectors. We particularly like that these devices could be safely dropped by drone, meaning decision-makers would be able to gather more data before dispatching human beings into potentially hazardous situations.

A solid team

Squishy Robotics is a majority female-owned startup. CEO Dr. Alice Agogino’s research has included work on machine learning, sensor fusion and a specialty called “tensegrity robotics” – which was referred to earlier. We looked up a definition for this one, and found the following here:

“Soft spherical tensegrity robots are novel steerable mobile robotic platforms that are compliant, lightweight, and robust. The geometry of these robots is suitable for rolling locomotion, and they achieve this motion by properly deforming their structures using carefully chosen actuation strategies.”

Squishy Robotics dropped from drone
Squishy Robotics on the ground
In addition to her work as CEO, Dr. Agogino’s bio states that she’s “currently the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering and is affiliated faculty at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley.”
Alice Agogino

What’s next for Squishy Robotics?

We asked Dr. Agogino that question. And it looks like there are some interesting developments on the horizon.

We are working to develop an innovative solution for increasing the number of methane inspections and the quality of recorded measurement data with our robots,” she says.

“Methane is the second most common greenhouse gas and accounts for approximately 20 percent of global emissions. Identifying methane emissions requires improved tracking and analysis and will need to incorporate tracking at remote and often unmanned sources, such as at orphan wells and pipelines.”

Squishy Robots are currently being deployed – with very positive results – by a number of partners. In fact, the capabilities of these devices were designed with those end-users in mind.

We listened to our future users and honed our robots to their specifications and needs. I think that is why we get positive feedback from virtually all the First Responder and military personnel that have tested and used our robots,” says Dr. Agogino.

“We have several ongoing pilot partnerships with U.S. fire departments that are putting our robots to work out in the field in real life emergencies.”

InDro’s Take:

We’re alway keeping our eyes out for unusual robots that break the mold and offer something of value. Squishy Robotics definitely fits this criteria. The ability to drop these devices from a significant height – directly into a situation that could be very hazardous for humans – is something we haven’t seen elsewhere. It doesn’t surprise us that this design emerged from research for planetary exploration.

And now, these devices are available for exploration on our own planet. If you’d like more information, you’ll find it at the Squishy Robotics website.

Oh, and if you’re aware of another intriguing robot you think we should write about, feel free to flag me here.