Wildfires are becoming increasingly frequent in arid regions in recent years owing to high temperatures and a rising incidence of drought-related to global climate change caused by anthropogenic activities.
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The incidence of forest wildfires globally has at least doubled since 1984, and major wildfires impacting large population centers have occurred and made global news repeatedly since 2020.
One of the leading sources of wildfire, lighting, which causes around one-third of wildfires during the summer months, is predicted to increase in frequency by around 12% with each degree of global temperature rise. As climate change continues, dry regions will become drier, significantly increasing the probability of a major wildfire.
The availability and capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have increased massively within the last decade, with various designs, ranges, and cargo capacities possible at both hobbyist and professional price points. Drones have been employed in the detection, containment, and extinguishing of wildfires by numerous organizations across the globe.
Why Are Drones Used to Fight Wildfires?
Drones offer several advantages over manned aerial vehicles such as airplanes and helicopters in wildfire surveillance and suppression. Firstly, the much lower initial and operating costs associated with drones allow a higher number to be simultaneously deployed, significantly widening the area under observation.
Drone pilots require significantly less training than pilots of manned aerial vehicles, can work in shifts without requiring the drone to return to a depot, and are placed in no danger when flying above wildfires for investigative or firefighting purposes.
Indeed, intense smoke produced by wildfires often limits visibility to such an extent that it is unsafe to fly conventional manned vehicles within the vicinity, while the low cost of drones, in combination with a reliance on technologies such as radar and infrared cameras over human vision, allow them to be effectively operated in low visibility or the dark.
Drones are capable of flying, comparatively, extremely low and slow over wildfires while collecting detailed high-resolution imagery. This is useful for observing the current layout of the wildfires, planning escape routes, predicting the probable spread of the fire, and much more.
Modern drones utilized for this type of application are capable of being operated from a simple laptop computer at a distance of dozens of miles, with data actively fed back to the operating center. Top speeds of only tens of miles per hour mean that drones are not necessarily suitable for rapid deployment at a distance, but the low weight and small dimensions of drones allow them to be quickly delivered to a suitable launch position by a small team. Many drones can also be operated autonomously, which is more typically exploited during routine wildfire surveillance.
How are Drones Used to Fight Wildfires?
Drones have proven extremely useful during routine inspections for wildfire and probable wildfire sources, allowing a small team to examine remote and difficult-to-access regions in detail. Specific installations such as oil and gas pipelines, electrical infrastructure, and other potential sources of wildfire are regularly examined for defects, which can instead be checked using low-flying drones carrying powerful cameras and utilizing stabilization hardware and software.
Similarly, wildfire fighting installations such as water hydrant networks can be examined in this manner, as well as extensive data gathered regarding the course of the fire post-incident. Safety, time-saving, and financial incentives are provided when utilizing drones for these types of inspections and allow fire safety officers to monitor a much greater area of land for wildfire and wildfire risks.
However, the full adoption of drones into wildfire fighting measures is limited by initial start-up costs, existing legislation and liability issues, the availability of trained personnel, and problems surrounding cybersecurity and sensitive data collection.
Drones have also been utilized within controlled burn projects, wherein wildfires are intentionally started to clear underbrush. Specially designed droppable capsules containing potassium permanganate, designed to mix with glycol upon trigger by the drone operator to ignite the substance, have been used for this purpose, termed “Dragon Eggs” by the creators.
Controlled burns are utilized by nations plagued with wildfires around the world to clear away flammable material in a manageable way before the outbreak of wildfire, but they typically require extensive resources to perform safely. Fire initiation and monitoring using drones could make controlled burn operations more feasible in the future.
Do Drones Cause Wildfire?
Drones can also pose a threat of causing wildfires, and the flying of civilian drones around wildfires is discouraged by law in some nations, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration imposes a $20,000 fine on drone pilots interfering with wildfire suppression, and it is a federal crime to interfere with firefighting efforts on public land.
Most drones contain lithium-ion batteries, which are prone to violent inflammation when damaged or wet. Unattended crashed or abandoned drones, therefore, pose a major wildfire risk. Further, actively flying hobbyist drones around wildfires presents a risk of mid-air collision with firefighting drones or manned aerial vehicles and forces their grounding.
References and Further Reading
Manssor, S., et al. (2022). Elevation in wildfire frequencies with respect to the climate change. Journal of Environmental Management, p.301. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0301479721018314
Twidwell, D., et al. (2016). Smokey comes of age: unmanned aerial systems for fire management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14(6), pp.333–339. https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fee.1299
Croteau, G., et al. (2010). Emission factors and exposures from ground-level pyrotechnics. Atmospheric Environment, 44(27). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1352231010004310