From California to Turkey to Australia, wildfires, also known as bushfires, are everywhere – and they’re increasing in both frequency and intensity. In 2020, over 10.2 million acres of land were affected by wildfires in the United States alone, compared to just 3.4 million acres lost in 2010.1
This represents a staggering 200% increase over the last decade. Equally alarming, Australia’s 2019–20 bushfire season destroyed an estimated 46 million acres, causing a record $4.5 billion in damage to infrastructure, agriculture, and business interruptions, compared to $1.6 billion during the previous year’s season.2
Because of the significant risk wildfires pose to safety, the environment and the economy, it is essential that firefighters be equipped with the very best tools, technology and methods.
Traditionally, these tools have included the use of an array of ground-based systems, supported in the air by manned rotor and fixed-wing aircraft. Unfortunately, many of the available ground-based systems are unable to provide coverage over the huge areas that wildfires tend to affect. And because many wildfire missions require rotorcraft to operate over long distances, at night, during all weather conditions, in remote areas, and with limited to no infrastructure, such operations are inherently dangerous.
But now there is a safer, cheaper and cleaner way of supporting wildfire missions: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also referred to as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones.
‘Medium- and heavy-lift drones can be deployed for long-range missions in adverse conditions, day and night, at high altitude, and in a large spectrum of temperatures – all without any risk to the crew,’ says Ronnie Fahy, CEO of Éire Aviation, an aviation services and technologies company serving the Australia and Asia Pacific region. ‘As a result, I see this as being a real game-changer for firefighting missions, not only in Australia and the Asia Pacific region, but across the world.’
The UAV advantage
According to a recent study conducted by MDPI,3 when it comes to wildfires, two key elements must be addressed: the time span between the start of a fire and the arrival of firefighters, and the ability to quickly evaluate the extent of the event and monitor the emergency response.
‘These two key elements can only be properly addressed through the development of reliable and efficient systems for early-stage fire detection and monitoring,’ says the report.
UAVs that can fly for multiple hours, cover large areas and carry heavy sensor and camera gear tick all the boxes.
Take, for example, remote sensing, an area where UAVs excel. ‘Remote sensing with aerial systems presents multiple advantages in the context of emergency assistance,’ states the MDPI report. ‘Their high manoeuvrability allows them to dynamically survey a region, follow a defined path or navigate autonomously.’
Another key advantage is that large UAVs offer the same sensor payload performance as a manned helicopter, but without the inherent limitations. ‘That means they can be loaded with a wide range of sensors for capturing data – data that can then be used to both monitor the situation on the ground and plan appropriate emergency responses,’ says Fahy.
The MDPI report goes on to highlight that, because UAVs are remotely controlled, their use significantly reduces the risk to firefighters, often completely removing them from life-threatening tasks. ‘The automation of manoeuvres, planning and other mission-related tasks through a computer interface improves distant surveillance and monitoring, and has a direct impact on the firefighting resource management,’ says the report.
Little infrastructure, minimal ground support and quick dispatch time
Drones can also safely operate at night, in adverse weather conditions, and in other scenarios deemed too dangerous for manned operations. And, unlike manned missions, drones can operate over long distances without the need for infrastructure and with only minimal ground support – meaning they can be dispatched much faster than a manned helicopter. Some systems can even be transported to the work location in a van or other commercial vehicle, from which just a couple of crew members can deploy it, often in less than 15 minutes and with little to no infrastructure required.
These characteristics in particular make drones an ideal solution for fighting bushfires in Australia. ‘Due to limited resources and logistics, typically only a few helicopters are dispatched to a small fire,’ says Ashley Williams, an aviation consultant at Longbow Aviation Pty Ltd.
But, as Williams points out, all fires start small. ‘Too often, these small fires spread and, by the time resources get to the scene, the fire is big enough that it could take weeks, if not months, to control,’ he adds. ‘Of course, during this period these resources are not available to fires that subsequently start in other areas.’
Williams previously served as Chief Pilot and Chief Operating Officer at one of Australia’s largest helicopter operators, who provided aerial intelligence to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) in Western Australia. He has also served as General Manager of Aviation at the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Western Australia.
According to Fahy, drones could change this. ‘Because drones are cheaper and easier to operate, in theory, departments can have more of them,’ he explains. ‘Because they can be dispatched quickly and fly long distances, they can be easily moved from scene to scene as needed.’
An eye in the sky
Williams notes that UAVs stand to be particularly beneficial in rural and remote areas, which often lack access to airborne intelligence and overwatch capabilities. ‘I believe that drones are well-positioned to help provide wildfire fighters with another layer of information,’ he says. ‘In this aspect, drones are currently grossly underutilized.’
This isn’t just hypothetical, as Williams speaks from personal experience. Last February, a bushfire in Western Australia destroyed 80 houses and damaged 300 others – including Williams’ farm.
‘Most major fire post-mortems include complaints about poor communication on the ground,’ he says. ‘Although much information is available from airborne assets, this information does not get to those on the ground who need it.’
As a case in point, during the Western Australia bushfire, five firefighting units were parked on a sealed road just outside of Williams’ property – which was already being burned. However, the vehicles were not dispatched because they had run out of water. Little did they know that Williams had 400,000 litres of water on his property, and a neighbour just 100m down the road had a dedicated concrete firefighting storage tank full of water.
‘This basic information would have been visible from the air and should have already been plotted on the fire department’s maps,’ says Williams. ‘If drones had been in the mix, they would have spotted the tanks and have relayed this essential information to ground support.’
Reducing emissions – and costs
Last but not least, because drones can operate on several different fuel types, fuel planning is not as restrictive a requirement as with traditional rotorcraft types. This can eliminate fuel diversion requirements. It also results in 90%+ less CO2 emissions than its manned counterparts – all while offering comparable endurance but at just a fraction of the cost.
‘When you add all these advantages up, what you have is a safer and cleaner alternative to traditional manned rotorcraft missions,’ notes Fahy.
For more information, go to www.swissdrones.com
Selecting the right drone for your wildfire needs
When choosing a drone for wildfire missions, one must keep in mind that not all UAVs are the same. In fact, UAVs come in a wide range of options, from large drones offering long endurance and high-processing capabilities to small aircraft with short flight times and limited processing capabilities.4 Deciding which drone is right for you really depends on your needs – and budget.
On one end of the spectrum are small UAVs, which tend to be more affordable than some of the large UAVs on the market. The trade-off here, of course, is that these drones offer a limited payload, flight range and endurance.
On the other end of the spectrum are the large UAVs. Although more expensive, one gains significant increases in payload, performance and endurance. For example, a large multipurpose, Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) unmanned helicopter system offers users exceptional payload capacity in the range of 40kg (90lb), including fuel, long-endurance (3+ hours), stable flight patterns, the ability to carry single or multiple high-quality sensors and a high degree of safety features.
So, how do you choose the right drone for your wildfire needs? Start with a budget. Not only does your solution need to match your purchasing budget, you also need to factor in ongoing operational and maintenance costs. If your need is immediate, be sure to confirm that the drone is available and not on backorder. And will you operate the drone yourself or do you need a qualified local drone operator?
Also, do your research. What is the drone’s proven market capability? What does the manufacturer offer for aftersales support? Do the drone’s capabilities match your needs? Are the payloads modular? Can it carry multiple different payloads depending on the mission?
- Total Wildfires and Acres (1983-2020) National Interagency Fire Center. Available online: https://www.nifc.gov/fire-information/statistics/wildfires
- Masters, J. Ph.D Reviewing the horrid global 2020 wildfire season. 2021. Available online: https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/01/reviewing-the-horrid-global-2020-wildfire-season/
- Akhloufi, M.A.; Couturier, A.; Castro, N.A. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Wildland Fires: Sensing, Perception, Cooperation and Assistance. Drones 2021, 5, 15. https://www.mdpi.com/2504-446X/5/1/15
- Watts, A.; Ambrosia, V.; Hinkley, E. Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Remote Sensing and Scientific Research: Classification and Considerations of Use. Remote Sens. 2012, 4, 1671–1692.