Bringing a Drone to a Firefight

Bringing a Drone to a Firefight

By Robert VerBruggen - December 9, 2014

The helicopter lowers itself, and a basket dangling from its underside dips into a pond. Then, the vehicle maneuvers a bit, releases the water in mid-flight -- and precisely extinguishes a small fire raging below.

The odd part? The helicopter has no pilot in it. It’s a Lockheed Martin K-MAX, functioning as part of an “unmanned aerial system.” In other words, it’s a drone. And though the scene is just a demonstration, it’s part of a shift in fighting wildfires. On several occasions, smaller drones have already been used to assist firefighters.

“Honestly, this could happen quite quickly as the comfort level grows with the firefighters on the ground,” said John McMillan, Lockheed Martin’s business manager for the unmanned K-MAX.

The potential is obvious enough, given how dangerous it can be to fly a manned vehicle near smoke and fire. “We have what we call the four D’s: the dirty, dangerous, difficult, and dull jobs,” said Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “Firefighting is one of the most dangerous and difficult -- and also dirty -- jobs that you’re involved with." Drones can face these situations without risking a human’s life, and they excel when it comes to delivering physical objects and enhancing situational awareness.

Drones could one day be used to deliver supplies to firefighters, evacuate survivors or personnel, and even (as seen in the K-MAX demonstration) apply water or chemicals to fires directly. So far, however, firefighting drones have mainly been equipped with cameras and sensors and used to gather information. In last year’s California Rim Fire, a drone provided video that helped to identify hotspots and other problems, and firefighters have sporadically used a NASA drone to surveil fires since 2007. The states of Oregon and Washington both hoped to use drones to watch fires this summer, too, though these plans were delayed a year due to various hiccups.

In general, agencies have been cautious. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, in 2012 launched an advisory group to look into the various ways a drone program might benefit the agency. Although the group has identified promising areas -- ranging from measuring wind speed to facilitating communications to locating roads and water sources -- no final decisions have been made. “We don’t have a hard date that we must implement something by,” said advisory group Chairman Bob Roth. “We’re terribly interested in new capabilities, but were also not in a rush.”

Similarly, Jim Douglas, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, said his department is “very much in testing mode at this point.” The department doesn’t currently use drones in its firefighting, but in the coming year it plans to do some careful tests deploying them near the “prescribed fires” (also known as controlled burns) it routinely sets to manage the land.

There are reasons for the long process. Roth cited the complexity of the issue, a lack of funding, and the distractions that civilian drones have caused by flying into fire zones without authorization. Further, despite the promise of drones, they can pose collision risks in emergency situations.

“There’s a lot of stuff going around, a lot of aircraft -- we can have as many as 20 aircraft on one fire at a time,” said Brad Koeckeritz, a national unmanned aircraft specialist at the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services. “We’re taking a cautious approach to how we introduce the technology and how we separate these aircraft from the manned aircraft.”

Regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration are also part of the equation. Government entities seeking to use drones for fire management need to get authorization from the agency; last year, the New York Times reported that authorizations could take 24 hours (down from several days years earlier) and quoted officials calling the process “cumbersome” and “frustrating.”

This may be changing.

 “In a natural disaster such as a spreading wildfire, we can, and have, issued [an authorization] in a few hours,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr replied via e-mail when asked about the agency’s current policies. As an example, Dorr pointed to a California fire late last year, several months after the Times article was published. Koeckeritz said his department has a “pretty good relationship with the FAA” and is able to access the airspace it needs for its testing, and Roth said the FAA has not been a “significant barrier” to the Forest Service’s efforts. The FAA plans to release new drone regulations soon, but Dorr was unable to comment on how they could affect government agencies.

It’s easy for the futurist to envision what it will look like to fight wildfires decades in the future -- with machines taking all the risks, and humans supervising the process from a safe distance. That’s a long way off. But gradually, this new technology is working its way into the fight against wildland fires.

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