Could drones be our best defense against wildfires?

Experts say climate change will mean more wildfires. Drones can help us fight them.

merino_bwThe devastating Canadian wildfire that’s raged through parts of Alberta is a symptom of rising temperatures associated with climate change, experts say. That means we can likely expect more fires. But firefighters may have some exciting new tools to help keep them under control: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones equipped with an array of sensors that can help detect, battle, and even prevent wildfires. Luis Merino is an associate professor of engineering at Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville. He’s been working on some of this technology and spoke with us about its applications and potential.

ResearchGate: How can UAVs assist in detecting wildfires? What advantages do they have over traditional methods?

Luis Merino: Long-endurance UAVs, such as solar-powered planes, could be used to survey large areas, helping in the detection of fires using infrared cameras and other sensors. Smaller UAVs can play a role as well, confirming potential fire spots detected by other methods, like tower detection stations and satellites. Many fires are spotted by people who then call them in to their local fire stations, and UAVs can confirm these sightings as well. All these methods are prone to false alarms, which can lead to the unnecessary deployment of fighting brigades. A quick deployment of a small UAV can be used to confirm the fire report, determine the precise position of the fire, and provide initial information about its severity. Also, before a fire even occurs, UAVs can have a big role in preventing wildfires by monitoring fuels and the condition of forests and firewalls.

RG: And monitoring active fires? What advantages do they have there?

Merino: Once a fire is active, monitoring it involves computing in real-time the evolution of characteristics like the fire front coordinates and rate of spread. UAVs are a good option for this task, as they offer better spatial and temporal resolution than, say, satellites. UAVs can easily adapt to a situation, locating themselves in better vantage points to observe the fire than sensors deployed on ground.

The use of such systems can reduce the costs associated with aerial fire monitoring. Another very important advantage is that flying over fires is a quite dangerous activity and poses a risk for human lives. UAVs can reduce this risk. They can also fly in smoky conditions and at night, providing information in situations that are hard for manned flights.

RG: What role can they play in extinguishing fires?

Merino: UAVs will not replace other aerial extinguishing techniques, but rather complement them. Given the current payload and capabilities of UAVs, they can improve the quality of information available to control centers and fire brigades. This could take the form of relaying the coordinates of fire spots that need to be attacked or monitoring the effects of measures taken. They can be also employed to inspect the embers and warn of potential fire re-ignition. UAVs are a good option for the analysis of the post-fire situation, like burn severity, as well. They’ve also been proposed for the creation of prescribed fires, which can help stopping an uncontrolled fire.

Aerial manipulation—UAVs that have arms or other means to grasp and manipulate objects—is a hot research topic right now; while it is in its initial stages, in the long term perhaps this could be used for additional tasks related to the extinguishing of fires.

RG: How widespread is the use of UAV technology by practitioners monitoring and fighting wildfires?

Merino: There have been many initiatives demonstrating proof of concept at the level of fire agencies. Now, companies are beginning to offer some related products and services. In many cases, these are related technologies, like sensor payloads for fire detection and monitoring to be carried by manned aircrafts, rather than UAVs themselves.

A key issue for the adoption of UAVs in firefighting is regulation. The incorporation of UAVs in a shared airspace with other manned aircrafts—and these are of course always present when fighting fires—requires the development of new procedures and protocols. And, of course, safety is of the utmost importance, as again UAVs will be collaborating with humans and other vehicles.

RG: Is UAV assistance more effective in some conditions than others?

Merino: With the current technology, UAVs can be employed when the wind conditions are not severe, and mainly for bushfires as opposed to forest fires. But with advancements to control mechanisms and other UAV technologies, they could also be used for the extreme cases like crown fires, which are associated with strong winds.

RG: What about the future? How might future developments in UAV technology improve or change the way UAVs assist in fire detection and control?

Merino: Again, progress needs to be made regarding the integration of UAVs with manned aircrafts and the related regulatory issues. Advances in sensor technology will allow smaller infrared and multi-spectral payloads for UAVs, which means that smaller UAVs will be able to participate in fighting tasks and provide better information about the fire. Improved endurance of the platforms would enable the UAVs to carry out longer missions. And new developments in control technology will allow them to operate under harsher conditions, like wind gusts, which are common and a big issue in the most dangerous fires. In the future we can also expect autonomous adaption of the system to the best points of view for observing the fire, and even the cooperation of several UAVs on these tasks.

Featured image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker.