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How Drones are Useful in Forest Fire Response

Explore the crucial role of drones in wildfire control in this blog, delving into their significance and the challenges they empower firefighters to conquer.

Last updated on

April 14, 2023

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Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are already in use for controlling fires in urban areas and places where people reside. These UAVs are usually quadcopters that are quite effective in hovering in one place.

In the event of a fire, the primary objective of using drones is to gather situational awareness, which can be used to direct the efforts of the firefighters in locating and controlling hot spots. Just like urban fires, forest fires to require monitoring so that firefighters know what they are dealing with.

Forest fires are different from urban fires; they are hard to control (sometimes cannot be controlled) and pose a greater threat to people and property. Here, drones can play a crucial role in detecting, containing, and extinguishing forest fires.

One example of drones being used to combat forest fires is that of California National Guards, who are using MQ-9 Reaper (military reconnaissance drones) to assist emergency responders in controlling forest fires.

They have already provided crucial assistance in massive forest fires, which include Mendocino Complex Fire and Car Fire. Before we dive into how drones are used in this context, it is important to understand why they are used.

Why Drones are Used in Controlling Wildfires?

In the event of a forest fire, time is of the essence. This is why it makes sense to use a drone for two primary purposes: initial detection and initial rescue. Here is a further breakdown:

  • Drones can quickly be airborne, fly to a location, map the area affected by the fire, and share the information to all relevant agencies within a couple of minutes.
  • A drone can carry a whole range of sensors, including a thermal camera that supports multiple color palettes. The combination of all these sensors provides a better picture of the spread and speed of the fire, which can help civil authorities to come up with a relief plan.

How Are Drones Used in Forest Fires?

Drones are useful especially in forest fires that are difficult to control. They are primarily used for collecting information and during post-incident recovery. Their usage can be explained as follows:

How Are Drones Used in Forest Fires

Information gathering

During a forest fire, it is important for firefighters to know whether they are hitting the hot spots, which is difficult and dangerous for the ground crew since such fires tend to spread over a large area. Here drones carrying a thermal camera can do the job much more efficiently.

A pilot flying a drone can cover a large area and identify hot spots using the thermal camera. Thermal cameras like DJI Zenmuse XT offer multiple color palettes that can precisely identify hot and cold zones giving a better idea of the kind of temperatures the responders are dealing with.

Learn how DEEP (The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) has been using drones to combat forest fires.


Aid and protection

Fighting any kind of fire is an occupational hazard for firefighters. But forest fires can move in any direction depending on the wind. This means a firefighter on the ground fighting a forest fire without the knowledge of the spread can easily get trapped. The footage captured by a drone can provide insights about the spread and direction of the fire. This information can protect firefighters from going too close to the inferno.

Terrain Mapping

Footage captured from a drone can be converted into a 3D map allowing civil authorities to ascertain the extent of the damage. This information is useful during post-incident relief work and for insurance companies to verify damage claims.

Real-time Awareness

Any kind of relief work requires resources, and for that situational awareness is required for planning. In 2018, wildfire threatened the town of Hechingen, Germany, which was facing severe drought and the water level dropped below 50%.The fire department of Hechingen was called in to control the blaze.

The fire was close to a remote country road far away from water sources and covered an area close to 5000 square meters. DJI M210 drones, with Zenmuse XT and X4S cameras, were put to the test and flown over the area to gather intelligence. Aerial imagery showed the firefighters the hot spots and the spread of the fire; accordingly, they planned to carry water, in fire engines, to the spot and control the blaze.

Thus, drones played an important role in providing intelligence for decision making.

Popular Drones Used in Fighting Wildfires

  1. DJI Mavic 3T: Compact drone with dual camera for visible and thermal imaging.
  2. Parrot Anafi USA: Lightweight drone with 4K camera and thermal imaging 
  3. Autel EVO MAX 4T: Visual thermal imaging drone with advanced sensors
  4. DJI Matrice 350 RTK - Night-Vision FPV Camera with multi-payload support
  5. Autel Evo II Dual 640T - Dual thermal imaging and visible light cameras.

How FlytBase Enhances the Capabilities of Drones Fighting Forest Fires

FlytBase is an enterprise-grade drone autonomy platform that provides a unified dashboard for managing a fleet of drones. The dashboard provides access to drone mission planning, live telemetry, and video streams from all connected drones over a 4G/LTE/5G network. Below is an illustration of how the solution works.

Capabilities of Drones Fighting Forest Fires

Establishing a Localized Command Center Using FlytBase Business

A forest fire can burn for days before it’s brought under control, so it becomes important for fire officials to stay close to the situation and monitor it.

FlytBase offers a drone autonomy software platform specifically tailored for firefighting missions, which helps in setting up a localized command center to manage drones working to bring a forest fire under control. Following are the features that would allow firefighters to set up a command center and some ways they can be used:

  • FlytBase can be accessed from a web browser. A firefighter with a laptop can log in to the FlytBase dashboard and see the status of all connected drones. Like a command center, he/she can manage and control all drones from a single dashboard.
drone forest fire

  • FlytBase comes with an advanced mission planner that allows for setting up a flight path for a drone. Using the mission planner, a fire official can program a drone to fly over a defined perimeter and map it in order to understand the spread of the fire.
  • It can stream live video and telemetry from all connected drones. Using this feature, a fire official can see the video feeds (at ultra-low latency) from all connected drones on the dashboard and even share them with various agencies either via email or using the built-in team management. This would allow for better coordination among different agencies.
fire fighting response team

  • The dashboard supports multiple views for different kinds of operations. For example, in a UAV search and rescue operation, an operator can switch to the IR view to detect the heat signature of people trapped by the fire.
Drones wildfire response

In the case of DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise and Matrice 30T, the dashboard supports MSX, which generates high contrast thermal images with lines and edges, and multiple color palettes, including isotherms. Using the color palettes, a firefighter can identify hot and cold regions, which can aid in the identification of hot spots.

Early detection of forest fires using drones

  • FlytBase can be integrated with cloud servers like AWS S3 for the storage of video captured during firefighting operations. These videos can later be used for training purposes.

Establishing an Automated Drone Based Response System Using FlytBase Enterprise

FlytBase can be used to set up a fully automated response system that can be integrated with ground-based hardware (Drone-in-a-Box) and computer-aided dispatch systems like 911. A system like this would function in the following way.

drones for fighting forest fires

  • An emergency operator receives a forest fire alert through the computer-aided dispatch system.
  • The alert is routed to the nearby fire stations. A fire official logs in to the FlytBase dashboard and selects the alert, which pinpoints the fire’s location.
  • The firefighter requests a drone recon over the area. The response system (powered by FlytBase) automatically creates a mission and selects a nearby drone station ( Drone-in-a-Box hardware). FlytBase supports all popular drone-in-a Box hardware.
  • The drone receives the command and flies off autonomously. FlytBase supports integration with UTM service providers like Airmap for airspace intelligence to support BVLOS flights.
  • On reaching the location, the drone starts recording and sends out a live video feed for the firefighter to see.
  • A firefighter has the option to use AI features like object detection to identify certain ground objects, for example, a hotspot.
  • The drone continues the mission until its battery becomes low. It goes back to the station and lands on the DiaB hardware using the precision landing feature by FlytBase.
  • The solution makes it safe for the drone to fly autonomously with an advanced failsafe that allows a drone to make an emergency landing in case of a hardware failure.

How Drones Enhance Forest Fire Response

The use of drones in forest fire response proves invaluable for firefighters facing the challenges of vast, unpredictable terrain. From initial detection to post-incident recovery, drones enhance situational awareness, aid protection, and provide crucial information for decision-making. Solutions like FlytBase further elevates firefighting capabilities, enabling the establishment of efficient command centers and automated drone response systems for swift and effective action in the face of wildfires.

To learn more about how to automate your drone operations, Contact Us.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: How drones are used in forest fire?

A: Drones equipped with a thermal camera are used in a forest fire. They are primarily used for identifying hotspots and monitor the movement of the fire

Q: Can drones be used to eliminate forest fires completely?

A: Drones are not used to extinguish fires rather they are used to monitor the spread of the fire and identity hotspots. With this data, firefighters can better plan on how to control the fire and safeguard human establishments.

Q: How can drones be used for firefighting and what functionalities would be most useful?

A: Drones provide easy access to aerial data, which is used by firefighters to identify hotspots and map the spread of the fire. Drones equipped with a thermal camera is extensively used by firefighters.

Q: What is the main goal of a firefighting drone project?

A: One of the main goals of using drones in firefighting is to identify hotspots and map the spread of the fire.

Q: Are firefighter drones a good alternative to risking lives, or is it an unrealistic idea?

A: Drones cannot replace human firefighters. Instead, they are used as a tool for identifying hotspots and mapping the spread of a fire. Armed with this information, firefighters can better plan their efforts.

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Baisali Ghosh

As a Marcom Manager at FlytBase, Baisali oversees the content strategy, creation, and management! With over 7 years of experience in the drone industry and 3 years of it at FlytBase, she’s a self-proclaimed drone fanatic and is obsessed with all things geographical. In 2022, she has been recognized as the “Women to Watch in UAS” for AI/Autonomy category by Women and Drones.

When she’s not busy hosting FlytBase’s webinar series or organizing NestGen - a global drone autonomy focused event, you can find her exploring the Patagonian Desert, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, or the Yellowstone Caldera on Google Earth.

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