The past several years have seen an uptick in wildfires. Even more worrisome is the spread and subsequent damage of these fires. To oppose the mounting threat, some fire departments have turned to unmanned aircraft for an additional countermeasure. It’s an obvious decision, considering the advantage that UAS provides in an emergency operations scenario. In this article, we take a brief look at the applications of these aerial platforms in fighting wildfires.
As with any UAS program, the primary objective of a drone is to provide situational awareness. Residential fires and hazmat operations are, for the most part, contained. Unlike these incidents, wildfires are expansive incidents, capable of growing rapidly in minutes. Maintaining awareness is a real challenge. Manned aircraft often fulfill this need, but they are limited by weather and geography. Sometimes, they cannot fly close to the fires to overlook critical information.
Deploying a UAS during a wildfire fills that awareness gap. Whereas an incident commander may wait a while for air support, a UAS unit on-scene can launch immediately. From the initial attack, decision-makers have a birds-eye perspective of the burn area. This allows to predict the path of the fire and identify any structures in danger. Rather than being reactive, a UAS-equipped response is well-informed and proactive.
The Thermal Advantage
Incorporating a thermal payload significantly increases the benefit of a UAS. Smaller aircraft like the Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced and Autel EVO II Dual have stabilized optical and thermal gimbals. Larger aircraft, such as the Matrice 300 RT, carry the H20-T, also a 3-in-1 payload. In short, it isn’t hard to find a platform with thermal capabilities.
Thermal cameras are so critical in these incidents because smoke obscures visibility. It typically hides the size of a fire, its direction, and other threats. Augmenting an optical camera with a thermal camera is one way of overcoming this challenge. Incident commanders remain aware of the incidents regardless of the conditions and make better decisions and decisions faster.
As crews begin to clean up after a fire, UAS aircraft remain useful. With a thermal camera, crews identify hidden hot spots. It is critical to prevent a re-ignition for the safety of everyone involved. So, placing a thermal asset at a high vantage point is certainly effective.
After containing a wildfire, responders typically collect incident data to update wildfire models. An effective solution is a LiDAR mapping drone. Rapidly scanning a burn area, a mapping aircraft accurately reconstructs the area affected by the fire. Rather than relying on photos for damage assessments, the command uses a 3D map. Building damage, forest density, and geography are captured in full detail—information essential to understanding the severity of the incident.
A more specialized application, some drones are outfitted with prescribed burn kits. To meet resource management requirements, some departments are finding it advantageous to employ UAS in this role. While drip torches and flare guns are popular solutions, neither one is as efficient as what the IGNIS system by Drone Amplified promises. Dropping small chemical balls that ignite on the ground, a drone equipped with the IGNIS payload starts a prescribed burn quickly over a large area. Furthermore, it reaches areas inaccessible to ground crews and creates precise fire lines. In an active capacity, UAS solutions make resource management operations more efficient.
By now, you may be sold on the advantages of deploying a UAS for a wildfire response. However, some agencies with UAS programs have run into some challenges you need to be aware of. First, the airspace over a large wildfire is typically congested. Tanker aircraft, helicopters, and spotter planes are flying in and out of a very small airspace. The low visibility alone makes for a dangerous situation. Adding small unmanned aircraft to the mix significantly increases the risk of air collision. To reduce the chance of fatalities, UAS operators need to be aware of the other aerial assets. When UAS pilots lose awareness of their surroundings, an already bad situation becomes much worse.
The second challenge some agencies are facing is the issue of privacy. Much like law enforcement UAS programs, fire departments have faced some criticism for their use of unmanned aircraft. One such widely known fire department, for example, met some resistance when they deployed their UAS unit. Their response? Be transparent as possible. Learning lessons from failed programs, the department in question clearly outlined their procedure for the city committee while working with the ACLU to avoid privacy infringement. As a result, the program has matured since its inception.
Educating the public about your UAS program is the first step to ensuring its success in the future. Assuming the public will understand may raise some tough opposition from decision-makers.
Whether it be overwatch or prescribed burn operations, UAS units are extremely capable assets for combating wildfires. Even fire departments with air support units (ASUs) benefit from having another layer between an ASU and ground units. A rapidly-deployable platform generates a more complete picture of the incident, especially for isolated units.
As fire seasons grow in length, your department may want to consider leveraging an unmanned platform for wildfire response. FLYMOTION, as a provider of unmanned solutions, stands ready to assist in this initiative. Our extensive line of UAS solutions coupled with industry knowledge will ensure your agency is fully prepared. Interested? Check out our website, or contact us.