April 12, 2023

How Drones Help Fight Wildfires

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This year has brought an unforeseen challenge to the state of Florida: wildfires. An unusually-dry winter, along with vegetation uprooted by Hurricanes Nicole and Ian, have left parts of the state vulnerable to fires. In early March, there were nearly 80 active wildfires in South Florida, according to the Florida Forest Service.

Unfortunately, the increase in Florida wildfires reflects a broader trend across the United States. Wildfires are increasing in size, duration, and frequency. Now more regions are exposed to the danger of wildfires, and overburdened resources are stretched thin. In response, firefighters are turning to new technology, including drones. 

But how exactly are drones useful in fighting wildfires? Can they make a difference? We answer those questions in this article.

Why Drones Are Used To Fight Wildfires

Maintaining awareness during a wildfire response is a challenging yet crucial task. Wildfires can span hundreds, even thousands, of acres. Moreover, they’re unpredictable. Shifting winds often change the direction of the blaze and start smaller fires.

Manned aircraft have traditionally provided situational awareness, but weather, geography, and operating costs are limiting factors. As a result, they are forced to fly high above the burn area.

Credit: Insider

Drones, on the other hand, can fly just above the canopy and relay information directly to ground crews. They can also deploy much quicker than conventional air assets. From the initial attack, decision-makers have a birds-eye perspective of the burn area. With this image, firefighters can predict the path of the fire and identify any structures in danger. In short, a UAS-led response is well-informed and proactive.

Drones equipped with thermal cameras are especially valuable during wildfire response. Smoke is always a challenge. Thermal cameras can cut through poor visibility and guide firefighters to hot spots, preventing reignition.

Some drones with thermal cameras include:

How Are Drones Used to Fight Wildfires?

Damage Assessment

After containing a wildfire, responders typically collect data to assess the damage and update wildfire models. A cost-effective solution is a mapping drone. Using either LiDAR or photogrammetry, teams accurately reconstruct the area affected by the fire. They can capture building damage, forest density, and geography with impressive detail. 

DJI Matrice 300 RTK with LiDAR payload

Prescribed Burn

To meet resource management requirements, some departments are equipping drones with prescribed burn kits. While drip torches and flare guns are popular solutions, neither is effective as the IGNIS system, for example 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. More importantly, it reaches areas inaccessible to ground crews to create precise fire lines. 

Credit: The Nature Conservancy


As useful as drones are to wildfire response, they are some challenges. First, the airspace over a large wildfire is typically congested. Tanker aircraft, helicopters, and spotter planes are flying in and out of a small airspace. Adding small unmanned aircraft to the mix significantly increases the risk of air collision.

To reduce the chance of fatalities, drone pilots need to be aware of the other aerial assets. A dedicated air boss and proper communication are proven ways to mitigate risks.

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior

The second challenge is privacy. Like some law enforcement UAS programs, fire departments have faced some criticism for their use of unmanned aircraft. The LAFD, for example, met some resistance when they introduced their UAS unit. Some residents and civil liberty organizations were concerned about how the footage collected would be used after the incident.

LAFD’s response? Be transparent as possible. Clearly outlining its procedure for the city committee the department used a measured approach to roll out the program.

A UAS program is truly effective when the community supports the initiative. Educating all stakeholders, including the public, on the technology is the first step to ensuring its success in the future. Conclusion

Key Takeaways

Whether it’s overwatch or prescribed burn operations, drones are invaluable tools for combating wildfires. Even fire departments with manned air support units (ASUs) benefit from having another overwatch layer. Rapidly deployable and maneuverable, drones can inform all levels of the response. That’s total situational awareness.

As fire seasons grow, your department may be considering a drone for wildfire response. As an experienced provider of unmanned solutions, FLYMOTION stands ready to assist in this initiative.

Interested? Fill out the form below.

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