Firefighters are using an MQ-1 Predator drone to monitor the Yosemite wildfire. Image via Wikimedia
It's day twelve. The massive Rim Fire blazing across California has consumed almost 200,000 acres, and firefighters are doing their damnedest to stop it from spreading North into Yosemite National Park. So they’re sending in the drones.
The California National Guard launched a Predator drone to monitor the blaze, the Associated Press reported today. The MQ-1 unmanned aircraft is being remotely piloted by the Guard’s 163rd Wing, from hundreds of miles away at the Victorville Airport in Southern California.
For all the controversy they raise in other arenas, drones are a firefighter's dream come true. They can fly close above a smoky blaze at levels too dangerous for humans, equipped with remote sensors and infrared cameras that send back high-res footage in real time to the responders on the ground.
To contain a wildfire, firefighters need to know where it is, the direction it's moving, and what's in its path—and they need to know as quickly as possible. The eye-in-the-sky can catch hotspots of burning debris before they erupt into flame and become much harder to control. And the live video and radar images transmitted back help the crew on the ground make quick decisions about where to send resources.
Up until now this data came from helicopters flying over the area. However, the choppers can't fly at night, can't get too close, and have to be refueled every two hours, AP reported. High-tech drones can monitor the area even in the dark, stay in the air for up to 22 hours at a time, and get more detailed and accurate information on the fire's behavior.
Aerial video of the California Air National Guard fighting the Rim fire for the US Forest Service
In addition to helicopters, ground teams rely on satellite technology from NASA to collect data on wind direction and speed, as well as the dryness of the area.
Thanks to cooler weather, firefighters have been able to get the Rim Fire at 30 percent containment, but experts predict it will keep burning for another month, possibly until the end of California's dry season, once it finally rains.
Satellite image of the Rim fire, via NASA
It’s high season for wildfires, and more than 30 large-scale fires are currently burning out west. So why isn't the Forest Service turning to drones to fight those flames? Because though UAVs have been used a handful of times in the past to monitor wildfires, and hold a lot of promise for the future of disaster relief, for now, their use is still limited.
For one, the FAA still has to approve drones that enter the airspace on a case-by-case basis—though it will generally fast-track the approval process for emergencies. Second, the fire-drones have to be incorporated into existing protocol. The UAVs are flying in the airspace above the fire alongside manned aircraft—something that's been done before, in disaster relief and military situations, but isn’t commonplace—yet.
Finally, using spytastic drones even for the noble cause of fighting fire doesn't assuage people's concerns about privacy. There are rules and guidelines to work out before drones are regularly called to duty when the forest starts burning.
For now, the Forest Service has formed a special task group to study unmanned vehicles as the fire-fighting machines of the future. It's possible that someday, we could even see firefighting drones built specifically for that purpose. And with climate change stoking bigger, faster, and more frequent wildfires with each passing year, we may need them.