Drone Data Assists Santa Rosa Fire Recovery


  • Commercial-grade Intel® Falcon™ 8+ drone helps first responders visualize the aftermath of the Northern California fire in Santa Rosa, CA.

  • Intel is assisting the Menlo Park Fire Protection District in using drones to improve emergency response.

  • Using the Intel® Insight Platform, the drone team created orthomosaics that aided in measuring distances between obstacles, while thermal cameras helped identify safe zones for search and rescue.



Andrew Georgopoulos has only seen the horrible aftermath of the 1945 nuclear bomb blasts of Japan in photos. But as he drove through Sonoma County following the 35,000-acre Tubbs fire that recently killed over 20 and destroyed more than 5,600 structures, he couldn’t help compare the charred scenery to Armageddon.

With a commercial-grade Intel® Falcon™ 8+ drone in the trunk, Georgopoulos was escorted by police through charred neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, California. His assignment was to digitize the aftermath from the sky, so first responders could leverage computer technology to speed the recovery efforts.

“It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off,” says Georgopoulos, a drone pilot in Intel’s drone team in the New Technology Group.

“As far as the eyes could see, everything was flattened. Metal safes were literally melted. Cars were burned to the ground, except for their frames.”

Getting the Call

A month before the fires, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced at InterDrone 2017 a program with California-based Menlo Park Fire Protection District to support its research on how drones can improve emergency response and critical responder situational awareness.

As acre upon acre of wineries and neighborhoods burned in Northern California in October, the Menlo Park Fire District called on Intel to assist with aerial assessment of the scene.

[Read: Drones Answer the Call of Duty for Silicon Valley Firefighters]

Georgopoulos drove three hours north from Intel headquarters in Santa Clara to Sonoma County, where he joined the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Together they used the drone to observe the destruction from above and capture images and data used to determine search and rescue efforts.

Pilot Andrew Georgopoulos launches an Intel Falcon 8+ drone to survey fire damage in Santa Rosa.

Georgopoulos flew drones for the entertainment industry in Los Angeles before coming to Intel a year ago. But this was the first time he flew an eight-rotor unmanned vehicle over several scorched neighborhoods, taking high-resolution photos of areas too hard to reach for fire engines in a timely manner.

Hundreds of his drone photos were then stitched together using the Intel® Insight Platform. This allowed his teammates in Santa Clara to create orthomosaics, which are a series of individual photos digitally matched up to form a new composite image. Adjusted for topographic relief, lens distortion, and camera tilt, orthomosaics can be used to measure true distances.

On the left is one of thousands of drone images eventually stitched together to create mosaics of neighborhoods (right) to help firefighters access damage and plan search and rescue efforts.

The data was also tagged with GPS coordinates so fire departments could then use those images to assess damage and find possible survivors.

Making it Safe for Fire Dogs

The second day, Georgopoulos flew over a Santa Rosa neighborhood with a thermal camera on the drone to determine ground temperature. Fire officials needed to know if it was safe enough for their dog patrol, tasked with sniffing out an elderly man who refused to leave his home during the fire.

Data from the drone indicated it was OK to send out the rescue dogs, and sadly soon after they found the man’s remains.

“That was a tough day,” recalled Georgopoulos.

Orthomosaics are a series of individual photos digitally matched up to form a new composite image of neighborhoods burned in the fire.

He said drones are providing information in minutes, and in search and rescue situations faster response time can save lives.

“With these thermal and mapping payloads, we can map and dice data and 3D models to help search and rescue in ways they’ve never had before.”

Editor’s note: Read more stories about drones and learn about Intel® technologies driving drone innovation.