While the term “drone” may carry a futuristic connotation,
drones have been around for decades. The concept itself has been around since
the mid-1800s when unmanned balloons were used to carry explosives in war.
For a long time, drones were primarily used in the military,
but they’ve shown promise for use among scientists, security officials, rescue
teams, and firefighting crews. Today, we take a look at how drones have
impacted the firefighting community and what the future holds for the
How Can Drones Aid Firefighting Missions?
A drone refers to any unmanned aircraft device, which is
often remotely controlled. With this in mind, they serve several uses in
firefighting efforts. Following are some benefits of drones:
- Primarily, drones are helpful in mapping a
wildfire site to aid in planning the best course of action without putting
pilots at risk.
- With the use of drones in areas with manned
aircraft regulations, drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras would make
firefighting at night and in low visibility conditions easier and safer.
- Drones can safely navigate an area where smoke
is thick and manned aircrafts can’t enter.
- Equipped with the proper technology, drones are
able to pinpoint GPS coordinates for a particular spot fire, which would aid in
water or retardant air drops.
- Drones can reportedly move faster and see more
than multiple helicopters can from different angles, and they can quickly send
that information to firefighters on the ground.
- Drones can also amplify an Internet signal so
that firefighters can stay up-to-date on the current conditions.
- Since drones can move quicker and stay in the
sky longer than manned aircrafts, they can provide firefighters with real-time
information whereas a manned aircraft might fly over a site only once or twice
Sher Schranz, a project manager at National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, sums up the benefits of firefighting drone use with the statement, "We can get more information for
less cost, and it doesn't put anyone in harm's way.”
Past Missions Show Drones are Effective Firefighting Tools
While the price of drones keeps many departments from
investing in the technology, they’ve already been used successfully in particular
wildfire cases. During the 2013 Rim Fire, for instance, a drone successfully
aided in spot fire detection, making it one of the first significant drone
launches in firefighting history. Afterward, fire managers reported that they
believed these drones could aid in missions related to communication crew, safety, and night ops.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks also launched a drone
during the 2014 Funny River Fire, which mapped the fire—including finding 15
hotspots—to help develop the best course of action.
These are just a couple of examples, but their success has
encouraged other firefighting teams to consider the technology. In 2015, for
instance, after over two years of researching drones, the Brookings, SD fire department invested $1,500 in a
drone to aid in firefighting efforts. The cost may be
high, but the benefits of this investment are becoming increasingly apparent.
The Future of Drone Technology in Fighting Wildfires
The technology used in wildland
firefighting has seen tremendous growth over the years
, and it’s exciting
to think that the future of drone technology is already here. The biggest
problem for most firefighting units, however, is the investment in costly
At this point, more departments are adopting the technology
while others are waiting for more affordable drones. In either case, the
firefighting community is still learning about how safe and effective this
technology can be. Once firefighters become more comfortable working with
drones, it’s likely they’ll use drones in fire suppression as well as in
While they’ve proven useful, drones still come with their
limitations. For example, those with infrared cameras lack the 3-D effect you
would get when looking at the fire with your own eyes. As firefighters adopt
this technology, it’s likely that more advances will be made, specifically to
benefit firefighting efforts, and eliminate these limitations.
What do you think about firefighting drones? Do you think
they’re an important technology for fire departments, or do you think the job
is better handled by humans alone?