How Drones Are Essential To Firefighting

Many blame climate change for lengthening fire seasons and triggering more and larger blazes. The Los Angeles Fire department has been using firefighting drones to coordinate the effort with the firemen to help stop fires threatening homes in the city. Drones can be used to collect video and photo evidence for fire investigations and can be used to determine the origin, spread and extent of damage caused by fire.

In the last 11 years, agencies in public safety, especially fire departments, have purchased unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in record numbers. Police, fire crews and rescue teams are increasingly using drones with thermal vision cameras to find missing persons at night and/or in dangerous surroundings such as burning buildings.

In the last few years we have witnessed an alarming number of wildfires in southern and middle part of California (e.g. Paradise) as well as Pacific Northwest. Many people died (at least 40) and thousands of buildings were destroyed.


The differences between conventional aircraft and drones are dramatic. In the first place, airplanes and helicopters cannot fly in poor weather conditions which limits their ability to survey the wildfires and drop retardant. Furthermore, such aircraft is extremely expensive to purchase, to be trained to fly, to operate and maintain since they require pilots. It is no wonder that they are typically in short supply.

Safer, Versatile & Nimble

The drone technology today provides an impressive assortment of drones from tiny quadcopters to large fixed-wing aircraft which can detect, contain and extinguish fires faster and with greater safety than conventional approaches. With a bird’s eye-view of the terrain, firefighters are able to anticipate where a fire will spread. This enables firefighters to make more accurate decisions in regard to where to deploy fire crews and which homes and families are in most danger and need to be evacuated immediately.

Another disadvantage of traditional aircraft is that they, especially helicopters, are dangerous to operate. A significant percentage of pilots lose their lives from flying under such dangerous conditions.

Conversely, drones equipped with infrared cameras that are able to penetrate smoke and the sensors provide information about direction of the wind and other variables in the weather that affect how wildfires spread. Because of their agility, they can fly through canyons and other tight spaces where helicopters can’t fly. They are also able to glide low enough to capture high-resolution footage.

Drones flying at high altitudes are also used to cruise over fires for hours, even days, and send a continuous stream of video. The larger drones can also carry supplies and thus help squash wildfires.

To many it seems strange that one of the methods of fighting fires is to start fires, that is, help establish what is called “firebreaks” to keep wildfires from spreading. Up until recently, this involved setting small fires by dropping flammable balls from helicopters, but now UAVs can drop the balls instead. These balls ignite on the ground and burn up vegetation lying on the ground in the path of the wildfire so that when the wildfire arrives, there is no fuel (vegetation) left.

It is not the intention to eliminate fires altogether since wildfires play a necessary role in the ecosystems. However, drones are playing an important part in firefighting by helping to prevent the loss of property, and even more important, the loss of people.

Fire departments have also found drones to be useful in locating lost and injured campers and hikers in areas with poor GPS ability due to the terrain. They would also be able to deliver first-aid supplies, water, a phone, a radio, etc. to people who may need it in advance of being rescued. And if this took place at night, it would not matter since drones have lights and can carry infrared cameras which would aid in the search for people based on body heat.

Sometimes wildfires are exacerbated by thick, black smoke where firefighters are unable to see the hotspots that need to be extinguished which may be because some of the fire was burning under the surface of the ground. Because of UAV technology, unmanned aerial vehicles can fly right over such a scene at 200 feet and see the hotspots and send back live video from the infrared camera. Because the fire was burning subsurface, it created a very ominous situation where someone walking on the surface would not know there was a hotspot underneath which they could fall through.

Firefighting challenges will continue, and may become even more challenging in the future. These challenges are taking place in both urban and rural locations on a regular basis. Drones, as already shown, increase the effectiveness of the firefighting capabilities of fire departments. It is vital, therefore, that UAVs increasingly play a greater role in this important service of providing safety to its citizens.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top