Drones: The future of fighting wildfires

Drone fighting wildefires

By Ulrich Amberg

From California to Turkey to Australia, wildfires, also known as bushfires, are everywhere, and they are increasing in both frequency and intensity.

In 2020, over 10.2 million acres of land were affected by wildfires in the U.S. alone, compared to just 3.4 million acres lost in 2010, a staggering 200 per cent increase over the last decade.

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Equally alarming, Australia’s 2020 bushfire season destroyed an estimated 46 million acres, causing a record $4.5 billion in damage to infrastructure, agriculture, and business interruptions, compared to $1.6 billion during the previous year’s season.

With the significant risk of wildfires to safety, the environment and the economy, it is essential that firefighters are equipped with the right tools, technology and methods.

Traditionally, these tools include the use of ground-based systems, supported in the air by manned rotors and fixed-wing aircraft, unfortunately, many of the available ground-based systems are unable to provide coverage over the huge areas that wildfires tend to affect.

However, there is a safer, cheaper and cleaner way of supporting wildfire missions, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also referred to as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones.

“Medium and heavy-lift drones can be deployed for long-range missions in adverse conditions, day and night, at high altitude, and in a large spectrum of temperatures, all without any risk to the crew,” the CEO of Éire Aviation, an aviation services and technologies company serving the Australia and Asia Pacific region, Ronnie Fahy explains, adding that “as a result, I see this as being a real game-changer for firefighting missions, not only in Australia and the Asia Pacific region but across the world.”

The UAV advantage

According to a recent study conducted by MDPI, in fighting wildfires, two key elements must be addressed, the time between the start of a fire and the arrival of firefighters, as well as the ability to quickly evaluate the extent of the event and monitor the emergency response.

“These two key elements can only be properly addressed through the development of reliable and efficient systems for early-stage fire detection and monitoring,” says the report.

Therefore, UAVs capable of flying for extended hours, covering large vicinities while carrying heavy sensors and camera gear tick all the boxes.

Take, for example, remote sensing, an area where UAVs excel, “remote sensing with aerial systems presents multiple advantages in the context of emergency assistance,” the report added, highlighting that “UAVs’ high manoeuvrability allows them to dynamically survey a region, follow a defined path or navigate autonomously.”

Moreover, large UAVs offer the same sensor payload performance as a manned helicopter, but without inherent limitations. “That means they can be loaded with a wide range of sensors for capturing data, which can then be used to both monitor the situation on the ground and plan appropriate emergency responses,” Fahy said.

Furthermore, the MDPI report goes on to highlight that, because UAVs are remotely controlled, their use significantly reduces the risks faced by firefighters, often completely removing them from life-threatening tasks. “The automation of manoeuvres, planning and other mission-related tasks through a computer interface improves distant surveillance and monitoring, and has a direct impact on the firefighting resource management.”

Added advantages

Drones can safely operate at night, in adverse weather conditions, and in other scenarios deemed too dangerous for manned operations, unlike manned missions, drones can operate over long distances without the need for infrastructure and with minimal ground support, meaning they can be dispatched much faster than a manned helicopter.

Some systems can even be transported to the work location in a van or other commercial vehicle, from which just a couple of crew members can deploy it, often in less than 15 minutes and with little to no infrastructure required.

These characteristics, in particular, make drones an ideal solution for fighting bushfires in Australia. “Due to limited resources and logistics, typically only a few helicopters are dispatched to a small fire,” Longbow Aviation Pty Ltd Aviation Consultant, Ashley Williams explained, pointing out that fires start small “too often, these small fires spread and, by the time resources get to the scene, the fire is big enough that it could take weeks, if not months, to control.”

Williams further highlighted that “during this period, resources are not available to fires that subsequently start in other areas.”

Williams previously served as Chief Pilot and Chief Operating Officer at one of Australia’s largest helicopter operators, who provided aerial intelligence to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) in Western Australia, as well as the General Manager of Aviation at the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Western Australia.

According to Fahy, drones could alter this, “because drones are cheaper and easier to operate, in theory, departments can have more of them, and as they can be dispatched quickly and fly long distances, they can be easily moved from scene to scene as needed.”

An eye in the sky

Williams noted that UAVs stand to be particularly beneficial in rural and remote areas, which often lack access to airborne intelligence and overwatch capabilities. “I believe that drones are well-positioned to help provide wildfire fighters with another layer of information,” he explained, highlighting that “In this aspect, drones are currently grossly underutilized.” This is not just hypothetical, as Williams speaks from personal experience.

February 2021, a bushfire in Western Australia destroyed 80 houses and damaged 300 others, including Williams’ farm. “Most major fire post mortems include complaints about poor communication on the ground,” he said, adding that “although much information is available from airborne assets, this information does not get to those on the ground who need it.”

As a case in point, during the Western Australia bushfire, five firefighting units were parked on a sealed road just outside of Williams’ property, which was already being burned, however, the vehicles were not dispatched because they had run out of water.

Little did they know that Williams had 400,000 litres of water on his property, and a neighbour just 100m down the road had a dedicated concrete firefighting storage tank full of water. “This basic information would have been visible from the air and should have already been plotted on the fire department’s maps, if drones had been in the mix, they would have spotted the tanks and have relayed this essential information to ground support.”

Reducing emissions and costs

 Last but not least, because drones can operate on several different fuel types, fuel planning is not as restrictive a requirement as with traditional rotorcraft types. This can eliminate fuel diversion requirements. It also results in 90 per cent less CO2 emissions than its manned counterparts, all while offering comparable endurance at just a fraction of the cost. “When you add all these advantages up, what you have is a safer and cleaner alternative to traditional manned rotorcraft missions,” Fahy noted.

Tags : DroneEmergency ServicesWildfires
Karim Tolba

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