And if a fire starts to close in on a crew, drones can identify a quick escape route. “If we have a group of firefighters trapped we can easily send three or four drones up there,” Runyan says.
Proving their mettle
These nimble aircraft have already begun to show their mettle. As fires raged across California last summer, dozens of helicopters were grounded. “The smoke was too thick for them to fly for days, sometimes weeks,” says Brad Koeckeritz, chief of the Interior Department’s unmanned aircraft systems division. “The drones provided an opportunity to gather intelligence at a time when we wouldn’t be able to gather it any other way.”
In California and Oregon, drones flew through thick smoke to find small fires that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been detected until they had become much larger and harder to contain, Koeckeritz says.
High-flying drones and drone swarms
Going forward, wildfire experts intend to deploy high-altitude drones to cruise over fires and send back a continuous stream of video. “You’re talking about an aircraft that can cover a massive amount of land at 65,000 feet…We can loiter one above a fire for hours or days on end,” Runyan says. “It’s ever vigilant, and that’s an ability we’ve never had.”
Unmanned helicopters could also carry in supplies and help tame wildfires. These oversized drones will dump buckets of water on a blaze long after sunset, when manned helicopters have landed for the night.
Drones can help establish firebreaks to keep wildfires from spreading. Firefighters often set small, controlled fires by dropping flammable balls from helicopters. The balls ignite on the ground and burn up vegetation lying in the wildfire’s path; when the wildfire arrives, there’s no fuel left.
But the low-altitude flights required to make these drops put pilots and crew at risk. Engineers at the University of Nebraska are testing drones that could drop these balls instead.
Someday entire swarms of firefighting drones may be launched over wildfires. These would be programmed to fly autonomously — no need for drone pilots on the ground below — and share information with each other and with firefighters on the ground, says Dr. Hung La, director of the advanced robotics and automation laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno and a leader in the development of autonomous drone swarms.
Drones won’t stamp out fires completely — and since wildfires play an important role in many ecosystems, we wouldn’t want them to. But already drones are helping prevent the loss of lives and property — with greater capabilities in the works. As Runyan puts it, “The opportunities are endless.”
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