Canada is no stranger to forest fires, with over 10 000 incidents on average each year. A quick glance at the Canadian Wildfire Information System’s online map reveals the numerous daily fires occurring across the country during the summer. Most of these are small but the less than 1% of “big” ones are responsible for more than 90% of the burn area. With growing concerns over drought and climate change, and the recent blaze in Fort McMurray—spanning over 500 000 hectares and forcing the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history—we can’t help but wonder how drones might assist the fight against this frequent and fierce foe, today and in the future.
Your friendly neighbourhood quadcopter is typically equipped with a camera that can take stunning images of a nature scene, sports event, wedding, or anything in between. Since drones can have flight times of up to an hour and be controlled from miles away, it isn’t hard to imagine them tracking wildfire perimeters, providing infrared thermal imagery, and coordinating firefighting efforts from a safe distance.
Drones aren’t the only potential eyes in the sky, however they do offer certain advantages. Helicopters and planes can carry heavier equipment—including water tanks—but are expensive and place the human operator at risk, while satellites are limited in terms of image resolution, their ability to peer through thick cloud or smoke, and transferring time-sensitive data to ground personnel. By contrast, drones are relatively quick to deploy, highly manoeuvrable, can be equipped with cutting edge camera technology, and come with less risk and cost. In the hands of trained pilots, they are a fitting tool for situational awareness and management (but beware, flying unauthorized drones near a forest fire can cost you $100 000 in fines and land you a year in jail, as BC Premier Christy Clark warns).
That drones are being used at all is already a welcome improvement for fire crews—the next question is: are they being used to their full potential? What drone technologies, operational strategies, or applications might make a big difference in future firefighting efforts?
For one, an intelligent and integrated response system has the potential to streamline data collection, processing, and field operations. California-based Intelligent Processing Systems (IPS) offers the Mobile Command Center (MCC), a highly modified Ford pick-up truck.
The MCC serves as a mobile nerve center that interfaces with subsurface, ground, and airborne vehicles, manned or unmanned, and can organize data in Geographic Information System (GIS) software. As the CEO of IPS puts it, “There is a tremendous amount of data that needs to be managed to enable different groups to effectively respond together to emergencies… [MCC] can help retrieve that information after the fact for lessons learned, after-action reporting, and reimbursement.” Systems-level innovations like the MCC would enable the complex network of response personnel to receive live updates collected by drones, and work more efficiently in handling the dynamic dangers of a forest fire. Although it’s more agile than RV-sized command centres, the MCC is still challenging and expensive to deploy to remote locations compared to a potential all-in-one drone-based system in the future.
Another possibility, echoing Amazon’s drone delivery aspirations, would be to use drones for resource management. This is admittedly hard to do with most currently available drones, which can’t carry more than a few kilograms. However, future more powerful drones could deliver emergency medical supplies, communications equipment, food and water, or fire-dousing fluids.
One current contender might be the K-MAX Unmanned Aerial Truck, a 6000-pound capacity drone originally designed for the US military. Picture this beastly machine carrying vital emergency response cargo through hot or smoky zones, avoiding ground obstacles or a lack of roads, to support first responders or relief centres. In situations with strained human resources, heavy-lift delivery drones could play a vital role in logistics, albeit with a hefty price-tag for now.
Then there are clever ways to use drones in a preventive capacity, performing aerial surveys and pinpointing fires early on before they become uncontrollable. At present, popular methods of detecting forest fires include satellite imagery and civilian reporting. These offer limited accuracy in location information, and require the forest fire to be intense enough such that its heat signature or smoke trail can be picked up by satellite or nearby residents. Ground patrols can be effective, but happen only so often.
A more aggressive monitoring strategy might involve drones conducting scheduled surveys of vast forested areas or deploying rapidly upon reported outbreaks of fire. At UC Berkeley, a team of researchers known as the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit (FUEGO) has already proposed a system of drones and satellites for early wildfire detection. Borrowing techniques from astrophysics imaging, geosynchronous satellites equipped with megapixel infrared sensors would be able to flag regions with high infrared activity. Drones could then be dispatched to confirm and pinpoint fires in as little as three minutes.
These are just some of hardware or systems-level possibilities; there is also amazing potential for data processing algorithms and for drone use in the aftermath of a disaster. Imagine drones that could autonomously track and report the burn perimeter, or learn to identify spots with a high risk of fire initiation. Also imagine drones for assessing damages and inspecting structures before sending crews on-foot for salvage and clean-up operations.
Major challenges must still be overcome before drones become commonplace in disaster and emergency services—airspace management and certain technical or cost barriers—but it’s clear that drones can be and have been an enabling operational tool. As citizens, we’re responsible for keeping ourselves and each other safe. While our hearts go out to those faced with unfortunate hardship, our brains must think of new ways to prevent, protect, and respond moving forward.