Thursday, March 08, 2018

Government to increase drone use to fight wildfires

A federal drone (U.S. Bureau of Land Management photo)
Last year's wildfire season cost more than $2 billion to fight, straining the budgets of many Western states. When the next wildfire season starts, the federal government wants to fight it with increased use of unmanned drones, which it says allows missions to be done in one-seventh the time and at one-tenth the cost of a manned mission.

An incident last summer showed how useful drones can be. A Bureau of Land Management drone was flying over a blaze in the Umpqua National Forest in southwest Oregon in August when its infrared camera spied a nearby "spot fire" which was unconnected to the main fire and likely started by a windblown ember. A human pilot doing a flyover could not have seen the fire because smoke limited visibility to 100 feet. But because the drone caught it, firefighters were able to contain it before it became a big problem. "The BLM, a division within Interior, later estimated the early detection of the fire by the drone saved $50 million in land and infrastructure value that could have otherwise been lost," Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post.

The Interior Department increasingly relied on drones to help firefighters last summer, sending them on 707 fire detection and monitoring missions over 71 wildfires. It plans to ramp up their use this year and is working on developing drones that can help extinguish fires. "The goal: To deploy retardant-dumping helicopters capable of being flown either manned and unmanned, so firefighting efforts can continue around the clock. At night and in the early morning, darkness and low-lying smoke, respectively, obscure the views of firefighters above, often making missions too dangerous to do," Grandoni reports. The University of Nebraska is also testing drones that can help fight fires by starting prescribed burns.

Though the Interior uses only its own drones right now, the department recently solicited bids from private companies to fly drones over forest fires for data collection.

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