How Drones Are Fighting The Wildfires

The West Coast is burning.

Over the past month, more than five million acres have burned across California, Oregon, and Washington. Tens of thousands of people living in the Pacific Northwest are now displaced. At least 27 have perished in the fires. But that’s only the beginning.

Millions unaffected by the flames are subject to the smoke, which, according to the EPA’s Air Quality Index, is 200 points above the maximum threshold for “unhealthiness.” The air quality in Oregon is so far beyond “hazardous” that scientists simply don’t know what the long term health effects may be.

As the Earth continues to warm and the climate continues to produce more volatile weather patterns, we can expect situations like this to become more of the norm than an outlier. This means that, as a nation, we must come together in order to work safer, smarter, and more efficiently than ever before.

That’s where drones come in.

In order to curb fires before they spread, monitor areas of concern, and see through smoke in order to find displaced or trapped people amongst the blaze, drones are offering the unique opportunity for firefighters and first responders to gain an upper hand.

Thanks to their unique mobility and ease of deployment, one of the ways drones are helping today is by dropping “Dragon Eggs” on at-risk areas in order to contain the spread before it reaches new territories. These “eggs” are balls filled with fiery chemicals that are deployed by fire teams in what’s called a “burnout operation.” These operations were historically only enacted in rare occasions via helicopters, but with drones, they are seeing wildfire containment upwards of 61%.

But that’s only the beginning.

Drones with thermal cameras are also being used to scan the outskirts of the fires in order to identify rogue embers and hotspots spreading outside of the burn area. With this live monitoring capability, firefighters have been able to immediately douse new wildfire offshoots before they become infernos of their own.

We’ve covered the use of drones in traditional firefighting before, but as new firefighting threats emerge in 2020 and beyond, it’s important to remember that drones have evolved the way we think about information.

Just ten years ago, helicopters were the only way to track and combat wildfires.
So what are you saving when switching from a helicopter to drones?

For starters, price. The cost and flight of a helicopter is nowhere near that of a drone, let alone an entire fleet of drones complete with thermal cameras and volumetric measuring capabilities. But we should also consider ease of use, speed of deployment, and the practical application of a drone on-scene in the back of a truck, vs a helicopter on a landing pad 60 miles away.

But what’s the real price for sticking with traditional technology over upgrades to our ways of thinking? Our forests. Our property. Our lives.

We have the power today to easily and effectively monitor, scan, and prevent fires with recent advancements in drone technology. The next step is updating our firefighters and first responders with the training and equipment they need to apply that technology to the best of its ability.

Drones can make our communities, our country, and our planet a smarter and safer place in the future. With the applications we’re seeing today fighting wildfires, inspecting energy infrastructure, and maintaining communication networks during crises like this, perhaps there’s reason to believe the future can be brighter than woes of 2020 would have had us otherwise believe. 

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