Wildfires vs. Predator


No this is not about a new Hollywood blockbuster involving ugly and cruel creatures fighting each other. This is rather about shedding another light on a somewhat controversial human but unmanned creation: the drone and the reality of civil and commercial use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles.

Let’s start with firefighting. This summer, General Atomic informed that its MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) took part in the operations aimed at containing wildfires in California’s Sierra Nevada, in the Yosemite National Park area. This presence was largely – and rather unusually – covered by mainstream media and was depicted as a concrete example of how unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could have applications in the civilian world.

The first reported use of drones to tackle wildfires dates back in 2007. At that time, NASA did use its Ikhana drone to analyze the evolution of the blazes thanks to infrared (IR) sensors. The Ikhana UAV is NASA’s own research version of the Predator. The drone only performed its mission in daytime and a Global Hawk from the U.S Air Force did the nightshift. In 2008 the NASA once again monitored wildfires in Southern California and assessed the fire damage in the Angeles National Forest in 2009. So it appears that the use of a MQ-1 Predator, flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard was not a first.

For the manufacturer and services companies, the multimillion dollars question is to know what drones can actually do in such situation. Traditionally, firefighters use planes and helicopters to monitor the evolution of a wildfire. Such tools are rather expensive and need to be refueled pretty often, creating a gap in the situational awareness. Moreover, dense smokes can lead to the grounding of manned aircraft fleets. Concerning the advantage provided by drones, the first and most common answer is that drones with Infrared (IR) and electro optical (EO) sensors improve the situational awareness of the firefighters. Middle Altitude Long Endurance drones can fly for 24 hours straight, covering a great surface. Updated on-board sensors allow UAVs to perform its mission day and night, and also in poor visibility conditions when other manned craft are forbidden to fly.

Last summer, the Predator was broadcasting live data to the National Guard base, where a member of the California firefighters was present to analyze and transfer the information to the personnel on the field. Such capability was not available before. Cal Fire Captain Jeremy Salizonni told Vertical magazine that “in the first 30 to 45 minutes [of viewing Predator video feed] I saw more of the fire than I had in four days of hiking it.” The notion of diminishing the risk to which personnel would have to be exposed in order to get the information gathered by the drone is recurrent.

Sher Schranz, a project manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told CNN Money that with UAS he “can get more information for less cost and it does not put anyone in harm’s way.” Drones, as well as other aircraft, also feature the possibility of indicating safe retreats for firefighters.

That said, the idea that drones would save money is still open for debate. MALE drones remain quite costly – not to mention HALE – and wildfires of an intensity requiring them are rare events. Of course, smaller tactical platforms can be used in case of less extended wildfires. In France the firefighters operating in the Landes forest that type of drones, manufactured by French SME Fly’n’Sense. Apparently, French firefighters praise this new tool. Last May, as the Baikal Lake area was plagued with wildfires, the Russian MoD assigned drones of reconnaissance units to fire monitoring missions.

Another application for drones would be to use them as communication and/or internet, 3G 4G relay in remote areas. In the USA, some firefighting units are using tablets and Smartphone to coordinate their action and follow the evolution of the fire. A drone – eventually stationary – could provide them a continuous signal to remote locations.

But drones are still facing various obstacles in the civilian world. They require FAA approval and their flights have to comply with strict provisions. For instance, most drones have to be kept in the line of sight of an accompanying aircraft, stripping the benefits provided by an unmanned aircraft. The drone is allowed to operate in an area defined by the FAA around the wildfire, and authorizations are only granted on a case by case basis.