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How drones could help fight wildfires supercharged by climate change

From prevention to firefighting to reforestation, drones could be a transformative technology.

In an illustration, an unmanned aircraft system, or drone, flies in front of a smoke-filled sky.

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“The perimeter of the fire itself — where is the fire now? We don’t necessarily know. Can this aircraft maybe go out and tell us where it is right now?” said Joey Mercer, a research psychologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, who spent part of 2021 joining fire crews at some of the season’s most devastating wildfires — Dixie, McCash, Caldor and Windy, which collectively burned an area bigger than Rhode Island.

Mercer heads up a NASA project aimed partially at incorporating drones into fighting wildfires, a trend that appears to be picking up steam. There are now various agencies and companies testing or using drones in virtually the entire life cycle of a wildfire, from early detection and prevention through fighting active blazes to cleanup and reforestation. The idea is that these uncrewed aircraft can streamline many aspects of fire management in a world where climate change is supercharging traditional fire patterns. Quicker, smarter, safer, cheaper — all crucial upgrades on a burning planet.

The blazing new normal

Wildfires in remote areas are often detected by satellite or crewed aircraft — both of which provide limited coverage. “Satellites, they are maybe covering the area once or twice per day,” Honkavaara told Grid. “We can detect [the fires] earlier.”

The FireMan project is bringing together a variety of experts at several Finnish universities and institutes to design a system where a swarm of small drones — ranging from around five or 10 to potentially more than 100, Honkavaara said — could autonomously patrol an area deemed to be at risk of wildfire, using thermal imaging and other sensors to find hot spots. Early detection of fires could allow firefighter teams to rush to an area and suppress the blaze before it balloons into something much less manageable and much more dangerous.

The FireMan team will incorporate artificial intelligence tools that will help predict the movement of a fire once it starts, helping guide the response, as well as novel communications systems between the drones and the responders on the ground that are capable of functioning well beyond the reach of cell towers or Wi-Fi. The team will test the system this year in a series of prescribed burns — purposely set fires. Honkavaara hopes that within a few years, it will be operational in the field.

Airborne coordination

When a large wildfire is already underway, the response can often involve multiple crewed aircraft — large tankers to drop water or fire retardant, helicopters bringing fire crews to relevant areas, and so on. NASA’s Mercer said coordinating these aircraft involves a “trust but verify” system, where the pilots are both talking to each other and visually confirming each plane or helicopter’s location. Drones are too small for such visual confirmation, so new systems need to be developed to make sure every aircraft is aware of the others, crewed or not.

This could eventually see larger drones carrying water or retardant to drop on fires at night, a sort of “second shift” of firefighting to carry on when the crewed aircraft are grounded. And when day breaks and the big planes are back in the sky, they will work in concert with smaller drones, where before the two could not coexist.

The goal, Mercer said, is a sort of digital equivalent to “trust but verify.” “You can’t see me out your window, but you could see me on some other type of electronic device,” he said.

In remote areas where communications are difficult and line-of-sight to global positioning satellites may be compromised, larger drones could eventually be used at high altitudes to create a sort of ad hoc communications network, Kopardekar said, allowing the other aircraft below to talk to one another and position themselves appropriately.

A drone being used in wildfire response operations is seen flying at the Dixie fire in Northern California in August 2021.
A drone being used in wildfire response operations is seen flying at the Dixie Fire in California in August 2021.

After the fire

“These are not something you can buy at Best Buy,” he said. “They’re about 8 feet in diameter — so they’re taller than me, stood up on end.”

A man operates drones, which can be used to plant trees in rough terrain, in a forest.
A man operates drones, which can be used to plant trees in rough terrain, in a forest.

As the climate continues to warm, experts expect further increases in the number of fires and acres burned, so the opportunities to incorporate drone technology will continue to expand. “It’s about making [firefighters’] efforts more effective,” Kopardekar said. “The community does a tremendous job. They put in huge effort day in and day out. And we owe them good technologies and tools to continue to fight. That’s the goal.”

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