Drones Revolutionize Wildland Firefighting

Drones are being used to help suppress and contain wildfire, saving lives on the ground and in the air.

Drones Revolutionize Wildland Firefighting
Listen to the ‘The Air Up There’ podcast episode.

By C. Troxell, FAA

Yet another active wildfire season in the western and central United States has created continuous, challenging work for firefighters and land management experts, but the FAA is here to help — with hundreds of drone authorizations.

We’ve heard the stories of drones interfering with wildland firefighting, but did you know that — when flown properly by highly trained operators — drones actually can and are being used daily to help suppress and contain massive blazes? It’s true, and they are saving lives on the ground and in the air.

“Our first (drone) missions occurred back in 2015, and since then we’ve seen an incredible growth rate,” said Dirk Giles, the Forest Service’s UAS program manager. “If you look at that 2015 timeframe and the platforms we were using now — increased endurance, better sensors, better integration into the airspace — it’s an incredible tool to heighten the situational awareness of on-the-ground decision makers right now.”

Giles’ unit comprises 65 drone operators, and he expects that number to double next year. Drones are helping Forest Service personnel and firefighters conduct operations more safely, with new, innovative tactics for land management and fire containment. This year, alone, the group has requested more than 80 emergency authorizations from the FAA through the Special Government Interest process.

“We get calls in the middle of the night,” said Mike Sheldon, an air traffic security expert for the FAA. It’s one of those things where we get a call, it’s an emergency, and we get those guys in as quickly as possible. We know those guys are working around the clock, and the amount of fires has become so difficult to manage over the last few years. It’s good for us to feel like we’re helping out.”

Sheldon and the five other air traffic security specialists developed a system to get first responders access to airspace immediately, “without all the red tape and paperwork.”

A drone flying over a forest wildfire.
Photo courtesy of Joe Suarez, National Park Service.

The emergency authorizations permit the Forest Service, their sister agencies and fire departments to fly drones within airspace designated to the purpose of fire suppression and management. Sheldon’s team in the System Operations Support Center are the experts and authority on publishing temporary flight restrictions for aerial firefighting operations, VIP movements, special events and more, and in the last few years they also have become the experts on authorizations for special drone ops — at the cutting edge of the drone boom.

“We had to figure out ways to do things that couldn’t be done any other way,” Sheldon added. “In one case, we helped firefighters used a tethered drone to see areas where we wouldn’t dare put people in the fire. Quite frankly, we didn’t know what we were doing because the technology is so new. We had to come up with a book on our own and learn by trial and error.”

‘A second set of eyes’

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, recently launched a drone program this year to achieve agile aerial surveillance of wildfires and to use drones for other emergency operations. Using drones equipped with infrared sensors and cameras, licensed drone operators at CAL FIRE collect data that at times would be impossible — and unsafe — to collect with piloted aircraft. Eventually, all 21 CAL FIRE units in the state will fly drones for their missions.

“We’re able to give decision makers real-time information, show them exactly where the fire line is, how the fire is behaving , and we’re able to do this both at day and night in heavy smoke conditions, when (piloted) aviation assets aren’t able to fly,” said Pete York, a CAL FIRE captain stationed in South Lake Tahoe. “It’s vital. It gives them really good essay to what’s going on before they engage in areas they might not have better intel for.”

Infrared technology on the drone camera enables drone operators to see more than ever before. York is able to livestream the camera feed to anyone who needs it, including incident commanders and other contributors in the effort.

“In essence, it’s a highly technical lookout, things we use all the time to have a second set of eyes from a different vantage point… I think having that platform to fly in zero-vis conditions and at night has allowed us to provide that person or supervisor on the ground information to make a better or more tactical decision…and safety is always paramount.”

Fighting fire with fire — safely

It might sound counterintuitive, but the Forest Service actually starts fires to better contain and proactively manage wildfires — with a success rate of controlling about 95 percent of them. The agency conducts prescribed fire aerial ignition missions in which they intentionally burn about 1.2 million acres of land per year.

“You have to think strategically at tactically,” Giles said. “We’ll construct ‘initial attack’ lines, containment lines. Most often, we fight fire with fire. Drones are another tool in our toolbox to enhance safety.”

These burn lines prevent flames from spreading. However, the aerial ignition operations are not without risk. The Forest Service has used helicopters for decades to conduct these wildfire ignition operations — with some tragic consequences.

“There have been four helicopter accidents within that low and slow mission profile, with 16 employee fatalities over the course of eight years,” Giles said. “We’re trying to move towards a new system to increase our employee safety. It’s a priority of mine…and the beauty of (drone) technologies is we can introduce a new conversation on risk acceptance.”

Giles and his team are using more and more drones for aerial ignition operations, by which the drone drops a payload of combustible material to start a controlled burn, creating fire containment lines.

“For example, there was a fire ripping over a hill coming down into a community,” Giles explained. “The (drone) aerial ignition operators pulled a really late night, and they just slowly walked the fire down from the ridgetop, just adding a little bit of fire here and there; and we can really begin to control the intensity and begin to manipulate it.”

A University of Nebraska prototype drone drops fire-starting balls in a 2016 demo. Photo: University of Nebraska.

Protecting the ecosystem

Giles said that these controlled burns via drones are not only helping the Forest Service and fire departments save lives on the ground and in the air, but it also helps preserve the landscape. By controlling the reach and direction of wildfires, the Forest Service is able to minimize environmental impacts of these massive blazes that have already scorched more than 6 million U.S. acres this year and more than 10 million acres last year.

Taking lessons learned from dozens of drone operations this wildfire season, Giles will lead drone operators through a data-driven training program at next year’s UAS Aerial Ignition Academy outside of Tallahassee, Florida.

“We’ve got some major burn scars, and what can we do with the latest and greatest science to rehabilitate these lands, so we’re not looking at erosion and watershed issues,” he said. “I think (drone) technologies will be at the forefront of that data collection and the science moving forward.”

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