Firefighting Technological Advances: A Closer Look at Drone Technology

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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 technology.

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 per day.

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 technology.

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 surveillance.

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? 

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