Pioneering Aerial Firefighting: Bushfire and Wildfire Risk Mitigation with Smarter Drones

By Susan Becker, Marketing Director | June 13th, 2024

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Wildfires, also known as bushfires in Australia and other parts of the world, are a devastating reality that poses significant risks to life, property, and the environment. As the frequency and intensity of wildfires escalate globally, driven by climate change and other factors, the need for safe and effective risk mitigation strategies becomes increasingly paramount.

Why drones excel in bushfire and wildfire risk mitigation and response

Integrating drone technology in bushfire and wildfire response offers a transformative approach to firefighting, from early detection and monitoring to aiding evacuation efforts and suppressing hotspots. There are even advances in drones’ ability to extinguish fires and transport people out of burning buildings. Drones excel in firefighting response thanks to several key advantages:

Aerial vantage point Drones soar above the flames and smoke to provide firefighters and emergency personnel with a real-time, birds-eye view of the situation. This critical information supports better decision-making regarding resource allocation, evacuation routes, and overall fire containment strategies including finding entry and exit points.
Agility and maneuverability Unlike traditional aircraft, drones are highly agile and maneuverable. If properly equipped with the right sensors and cameras, drones can navigate complex terrain, penetrate thick smoke, and reach areas inaccessible to ground crews.
Monitoring and Data collection Drones with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging sensors gather invaluable data about the fire, including its size, intensity, and spread patterns. The data feeds into sophisticated fire modeling software, yielding more accurate predictions and improved response tactics.
Cost-effectiveness Drones are significantly cheaper to operate and maintain than manned aircraft, making them viable for smaller fire departments and resource-constrained regions.
Saving time and most significantly, saving lives Drones significantly reduce the time required for firefighting missions and allow firefighters to keep themselves in safer locations. By delivering instant, real-time aerial data and high-resolution imagery, drones enable firefighters to quickly assess the situation and deploy resources more safely and efficiently.

How are drones used during a bushfire and wildfire risk mitigation?

Drones have proven invaluable assets in bushfire and wildfire risk mitigation, enhancing situational awareness, facilitating rapid response, and improving overall safety for firefighters and communities.

Real-Time Situational Awareness

One of the most significant advantages of drones is their ability to maintain real-time situational awareness during wildfires. Drones live-stream video footage to command centers, providing up-to-the-minute information on fire conditions and promoting dynamic decision-making and rapid response adjustments. Continuous drone monitoring helps firefighters track the fire’s progression and any changes in weather conditions that might impact firefighting efforts.
Furthermore, real-time data from drones enhances the coordination of ground teams, ensuring that efforts are focused where they are most needed and that firefighters remain safe.

Aid & protection

Beyond their role in fire prevention and containment, drones provide a critical lifeline during wildfires by carrying aid to those affected. These unmanned aerial vehicles excel in situations where flames, smoke, or rugged terrain may hamper traditional methods.

Terrain Mapping

Understanding the terrain is crucial in wildfire management. Drone data equip firefighters with detailed and accurate terrain maps, which are essential for planning and executing firefighting strategies:

3D mapping

Drone footage can help create three-dimensional maps of the affected areas with a comprehensive terrain view. These maps help understand the fire’s potential path and identify natural barriers that could aid in containment.
Vegetation analysis: By analyzing the type and density of vegetation, drones help predict fire behavior and spread, which is critical for deploying resources effectively and creating firebreaks.
Topographical surveys: Drones perform topographical surveys to identify elevation changes and other features that may influence fire behavior, evacuation routes, and safe zones.

Controlling hot spots

Once a wildfire is identified, controlling hotspots becomes a priority to prevent the fire from spreading. Drones accurately identify and monitor these critical areas to effectively guide firefighters’ efforts.

Guiding evacuation strategies

During a wildfire emergency, drones capture critical information to aid evacuation decision-making and ensure the safety of communities. High-resolution aerial imagery and video footage translate into real-time data on fire progression, potential choke points, road conditions, and safe routes. The valuable data assists emergency services in assessing the fire’s progression, identifying safe evacuation routes, prioritizing vulnerable areas, and communicating real-time updates to affected residents. By facilitating timely and informed decisions, drone data helps protect lives and properties.

Early detection monitoring: Expediting wildfire and bushfire detection and response

Early detection is critical in mitigating wildfire risks and preventing escalation into uncontrollable infernos. Drones with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging sensors patrol vast areas, identifying potential fire ignition or smoke plumes before they escalate into full-blown fires.

Controlled burning with drones: Fire starting by Firefighters

Controlled burning, also known as prescribed fires, is a vital wildfire mitigation technique firefighters use to manage vegetation and habitats for various wildlife species, reduce fuel loads, such as dead leaves, branches, and other debris accumulating over time, and create ideal conditions for wildfires. Traditionally, firefighters ignite controlled burns manually, which is dangerous and time-consuming, especially in rugged terrains. Drone technology offers a safer, more efficient method for initiating and managing controlled burns.

The Australian devastating bushfires

The Black Saturday bushfires swept across Victoria, Australia, in February 2009. As many as 400 individual fires were ignited across the state, fuelled by record-breaking temperatures, strong winds, and prolonged drought conditions. These fires burned over 450,000 hectares, destroying over 3,500 buildings, including more than 2,000 homes, and tragically taking the lives of 173 people. More than 78 communities across Victoria were directly affected.

More recently, the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, known as the Black Summer bushfires, ravaged vast swaths of the country for months, burning an estimated 17 million hectares across Victoria and New South Wales of land, destroying over 3,000 homes, and claiming the lives of at 33 people. It is estimated that over one billion animals perished, with more than 800 million of those in NSW, making the fires the worst wildlife disaster in modern history. Exceptionally dry conditions, a lack of soil moisture, and dry lightning strikes led to an early start to the bushfire season. The sheer scale and intensity of these catastrophic events pushed firefighting resources to their limits, highlighting the urgent need for more innovative technologies and approaches to enhance early detection, monitoring, and response capabilities during wildfire events.

Drone connectivity during prevention & extinguishing operations

Firefighting smarter drones that operate beyond the operator’s visual line of sight (BVLOS) extend reach, optimize effectiveness, and maintain safety in large-scale fire incidents. With BVLOS connectivity, drones are controlled remotely, overcoming the limitations of traditional line-of-sight control. BVLOS connectivity coupled with the ability for one operator to control a full drone fleet, significantly enhances drones’ utility in wildfire response. Multilink bonded connectivity ensures the continuous operation of drones, even in challenging environments, and enhances the safety and reliability of drone missions. The benefits of BVLOS, multilink communications include:

Remote control. With BVLOS connectivity, drone control isn’t limited to hazardous fire scenes. Operators control drones remotely, enabling safer operation while gaining a broader situational awareness from multiple drones in the control center to drive strategic decision-making.
Reliable connectivity. A reliable drone connection, even in remote areas or through smoke, is essential for the operator to maintain situational awareness. Bonded multilink communications systems ensure reliable transmission reducing the risk of signal loss, which is crucial during emergencies.
One operator for a drone fleet. BVLOS technology enables a single highly skilled operator to manage a fleet of drones simultaneously, maximizing efficiency and coverage. This capability is instrumental in extensive wildfire scenarios where multiple drones are needed to monitor different areas.
Rapid deployment. In wildfire response scenarios, time is of the essence. The ability to rapidly deploy drones can mean the difference between containing a fire and facing an uncontrolled spread. Drones designed for emergency response prioritize fast setup and portability, enabling quick deployment in challenging environments.

Engineered to meet the stringent requirements of military applications, Elsight’s Halo connectivity platform offers Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) multilink connectivity and uncompromising reliability for drone-based firefighting operations. The platform ensures a continuous, high-quality connection, even in the most challenging environments, by dynamically aggregating the best available links—cellular, satellite, and proprietary RF links—into a single, high bandwidth, secure, and robust data pipeline. Halo’s AI-based algorithm aggregates all the available links to a secure, bonded pipe to maintain a high quality of service and provide link redundancy in real time, which is crucial for reliable BVLOS drone operations.

Conclusion

As the threat of wildfires and bushfires grows, integrating drones into risk mitigation strategies has become increasingly vital. Drones are revolutionizing wildfire response efforts by leveraging innovative drone technologies, BVLOS communications, and advanced techniques. From early detection and monitoring to active firefighting and evacuation support, these aerial assets navigate complex environments to maintain invaluable situational awareness, drive strategic decision-making, and support efficient life-saving operations.

FAQs:
Where can I find information on aerial firefighting regulations?

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides guidelines and regulations for drone operations, including those related to public safety entities, such as fire departments.
The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) developed a UAS Toolkit for fire and emergency medical services organizations, including tactics, policies, technologies, and regulatory recommendations for deploying UAS.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) website incorporates resources and information on aerial firefighting operations, including the use of drones.
The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) specifies comprehensive guidelines on aerial firefighting.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulates and provides guidelines on drone use, including during emergency responses.

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