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Why UAVs Should Be Integrated Into Wildfire-Fighting Tactics

Unmanned aerial vehicles are well-suited to one day take over human-operated tasks, such as dropping water on hotspots to prevent the spread of fire early on.

By Andy Von Stauffenberg

As with every year, 2016 wildfires are plaguing the Unites States mercilessly, and our brave firefighters are having a hard time containing them. And unfortunately, wildfires are only growing stronger and more persistent. In 2016 alone, the federal government has been tracking 41,543 wildfires, which burned about 4.5 million acres of land – almost equivalent to the size of Kentucky or Louisiana.

While the number of fires grow, so too does the annual budget to fight wildfires. Currently the budget is an estimated $1.25 billion annually; however, the forecast shows that we will need to spend at least $1.8 billion by 2025 in order to maintain the same level of preparedness as today. Looking at the U.S. Fire Service’s annual budget, in 1995 only 16% of the annual budget went toward wildfire management, whereas 52% of total budget in 2015 went to wildfires. Unfortunately, fires are burning down all of the money trees and the U.S. Fire Service must shrink other services dramatically to combat the rapid growth in wildfires.

Fire departments all around the country are starting to look at quadcopters to assist in the firefighting efforts – these are small, cheap, easy and quick to fly; they also provide an unparalleled capability to gain a birds-eye-view of large areas.

One of the problems might be that though the fires are increasing, for the most part, we are fighting fires the same way. Sure, there are some technological advances being utilized – better communication and personal protective equipment, upgraded vehicles, and much more. Yet by and large, the actual way fires are being fought is still the same. It seems the only way to fight the increase of fires is with manpower – more firefighters to risk life and limb for our safety.

I for one would like to start a conversation that looks into utilizing unmanned systems, rather than human lives as a way to augment the current situation.

This may seem controversial because many have heard about drones flying near or toward areas of wildfires, and in effect hinder the firefighting efforts. Because of these isolated incidents, the general population sees unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as only adding to the difficulty that our firefighters already face. However, UAVs are already being integrated into the firefighting efforts and saving time, resources and ultimately lives.

An example of this is how since 2007 a RQ-4B Global Hawk UAV has been employed to identify hotspots during Southern California wildfire seasons. And again in 2013, during a major effort to contain a fire in the Yosemite National Park, firefighters requested help from the National Guard-owned Predator UAV for intel assistance. Both are examples of UAVs directly aiding firefighters by providing up-to-date information in a timely manner, without risking the lives of our brave firefighters.

Fire departments all around the country are starting to look at quadcopters to assist in the firefighting efforts – these are small, cheap, easy and quick to fly; they also provide an unparalleled capability to gain a birds-eye-view of large areas. They are the perfect asset for firefighters because they will improve the service unit’s ability to combat wildfires more effectively.

While individual drones are great, we must be looking at them from a systems standpoint in order to integrate them more effectively. As with most new technologies, UAVs are (for now) only being used sparsely. Some fire departments have them, but unfortunately most don’t. And of the firehouses that do use UAVs, only a few firefighters are trained to use them. Thus, in major disasters like wildfires, proper coordination is tough.

Yet once we realize that UAVs are in reality a tool, they can be integrated into the “rulebook”  (i.e. in a case of a wildfire, follow steps 1, 2, 3 – with step 3 maybe involving initial reconnaissance via drone) and aid the overall operational scenario with lower the risk of injuries to firefighters.

Of course, this will take time. Just look at the U.S. Military UAV’s, for instance. Just as today’s firefighters view them as a fun add-on (or neat toy), so did military commanders not too far back in recent history (even as recent as the late 1990s). UAV pilots didn’t receive the same respect as their manned counterparts until current day. Intelligence was “second grade” when it came from a drone, but somewhere during the exponential rise of the internet and cyber intelligence, things changed.

Now, certain military operations will not go forward unless certain types of UAVs are on station. Intelligence collected with UAVs is starting to outnumber the amount of intelligence collected from manned platforms. And while some still feel a stigma attached to being “inferior” drone operators, the military is creating separate career fields and specialty departments in order to ensure a smooth integration.


READ NEXT: FAA: 600,000 Commercial Drones Will Be in the Air Within a Year


Back to the firefighters, where we see a similar scenario – drones are a neat toy, but could also be essential to streamlining operations. I am certain that by 2025, we will start seeing a similar shift, to where firefighting operations are hindered because a certain UAV is not on station above, collecting real-time imagery, or providing communication links for the boots on the ground.

I believe we will see improved communication and an overall smarter, intricately coordinated way to fight wildfires, which means resources will be used more efficiently. UAVs might start to take over some of the tasks currently performed by manned platforms (for instance, dropping water on hotspots to prevent the spread of fire early on), thus reducing the cost and the injuries associated with wildfires, and hopefully also lowering the number and impact of wildfires for generations.

Andy Von Stauffenberg is CEO of VStar Systems.

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