People have found uses for drones in everything from entertainment to military operations. The ability to fly a small, unmanned aircraft equipped with all sorts of sensors has many potential applications. Firefighting operations have begun using drones, also called unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and they may become one of the most powerful tools forest firefighters have.
The Next Essential Firefighting Tool?
Drones have a number of potential uses when it comes to forest fires. They can aid in surveying land, predicting wildfire behavior, controlling the fire and keeping firefighters safe.
Aircraft are important to fighting large wildfires. They fly above the fire to gather information on its location, where it may spread and are also used to drop water and fire suppressants.
Flying a manned aircraft over a forest fire is dangerous. It’s especially risky, and sometimes prohibited by law, at night. In San Diego, for example, regulations forbid you from piloting a manned aircraft in an area at night if you haven’t previously flown there during the day.
Nighttime is one of the best times to fight fires, though, because winds are calmer. Drones with thermal cameras could fly over an area at night, eliminating risks to the life of a human pilot and possible even collecting more useful data.
In addition to mapping the location of the fire, a UAS can identify infrastructure such as gas and power lines, alerting crews to areas of high risks. It could also collect information on weather and wind patterns and especially dry areas to help predict where a fire might spread to next.
Firefighters can use the data gathered by drones to create a fire suppression strategy, allocate their resources optimally and increase safety by ensuring reliable access to escape routes.
Catching Wildfires Early
Drones could also prove useful for preventing forest fires from becoming problematic in the first place.
A research team from the University of California Berkeley is developing a system known as the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit (FUEGO). The system uses drones and satellite technology to assess fires in their early phases before they become damaging or out of control.
FUEGO can identify areas that present a risk for fires spreading and automatically send a team out to contain it. By constantly monitoring potential fire situations, we could stop many of them before they cause costly damage and become a safety risk.
The Cost of Drones vs. the Cost of Fires
Some firefighting operations have begun to use drones, but their reach is still limited. The most significant barrier to their implementation is cost. The kind of drone needed for firefighting could cost as much as $100,000. A system like FUEGO could cost half a million.
Compared to the cost of the damage from wildfires, though, that’s a small price to pay. The cost of a single fire event can easily extend into the millions and possibly even reach $1 billion. One wildfire that affected 22 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties in March left approximately $16 million in damages in its wake. More than $14 million of that affected cattle operations, a major economic driver in the state. The Forest Service spent about $1.2 billion on fire suppression in fiscal year 2014, and that’s just one agency and doesn’t include the economic costs of wildfire damage. Preventing the injuries and loss of life wildfires can cause is, of course, priceless.
Scientists predict that as global temperatures rise, wildfires will become more frequent and more damaging. We’ll have to use all of the tools we have available to keep these forest fires under control. That toolbox may very well include drones. The cost of these unmanned systems will likely continue to come down, but even while they remain relatively expensive, the up-front investment may be worth it if they can stop some of the economic damage, injury and loss of life wildfires cause.