After a summer dominated by news of wildfires, a beacon of hope has started to emerge. Soaring above the smoke and flames, these heroes aren’t who you might expect. No, these new champions against wildfire aren’t people… they’re drones.
Whether they’re being used to deliver your latest purchase, replace fireworks, or carrying lifesaving supplies to remote hospitals, drones are opening up new frontiers of innovation. Now, they’re making a name for themselves on a new front offering us a glimpse of a world where technology and nature can unite to confront the growing threat of wildfires head-on.
The State of Wildfires in 2023
With heat waves today 5 times more likely today than they were 150 years ago 1 and expected to become more common, the world is facing a frightening fire-climate feedback loop: where dry conditions lead to an increase in fires, more fires release more carbon, more carbon causes dry conditions, more dry conditions lead to more fires, and on and on the loop goes. And while the number of wildfires reported worldwide each year has stayed mostly consistent since the 1980s, the severity of the fires has not: of the 10 years with the highest acreage burned, all have occurred since 2004—a trend that coincides with the U.S. and Global Temperature Indicator’s warmest years on record. 2 And this increase in acreage burned isn’t a small one: the average acreage burned in the 2000s (7 million acres/year) is more than double the average from the 1990s (3.3 million acres/year.) 3 created by discarded cigarettes, unattended campfires, burning debris, equipment malfunctions by power lines or gas leaks, and more.
While preventing fires before they start is always best (here are 10 ways you personally can help with that), nipping a fire in the bud and stopping it before it becomes too large is second best. And luckily for us, this Canadian based company is doing both.
The Rise of Drone Technology
As the oldest commercial drone manufacturer, Draganfly Innovations has been on the scene in the world of drone innovation since 1998. Initially creating drones for the purpose of scientific innovation, the company turned its attention to helping solve problems in 2009, when a drone was used to collect evidence for a homicide investigation. And in 2013, their Draganflyer drone was credited as the first sUAS to save someone’s life. A year later, it turned to locating missing hikers in Nova Scotia. Bit by bit and story by story, Draganfly’s drones turned from the subject of skepticism to a real life saving tool that is helping combat problems worldwide.
Able to travel for two hours at a time and at a maximum speed of 108 kilometers per hour 4 (approximately 67 miles per hour) Draganfly’s drones are not mass-produced, but custom made and tailored to the purpose they are designed to serve.
Taking part in projects both noble and creative, these drones are deployed for almost any purpose you can imagine. There are fun purposes like recording footage for television shows, creating light shows to replace fireworks shows in some cities on the Fourth of July, or flying in pursuit of proving Bigfoot’s existence. Then there are the truly helpful purposes: search & rescue, environmental monitoring, precision agriculture, healthcare delivery, and more.
While drone usage for surveillance purposes is hotly debated, the benefit of these machines cannot be underestimated in these helpful purposes, which expand to include mapping and surveying emergency areas, tactical surveillance, initial patient assessments, and disaster response assessment.
What can drones do that people can’t?
They’re quicker, they’re safer, and they’re masters at vital data collection. When it comes to the benefits of drones over human firefighters, there are almost too many to count. Especially in cases where the fires have created conditions too dangerous for any human, drones are a shining hero, able to fly through smoke in which humans couldn’t even see their hand in front of their face.
In a situation where the path to access and fight the fire is dangerous (yep, that’s almost all of them), firefighting crews have a serious journey in front of them. Scaling hills, climbing over fallen trees, or crossing miles and miles, it can take hours for human crews to reach the site of a fire, and hours too to retreat, if necessary. Even by helicopter or ATV, every minute it takes for people to arrive on the scene is essential. But drones allow firefighters to remotely access fires allowing them to assess and combat situations within minutes.
The technology that these drones provide in the middle of a disaster is essential. Able to launch from anywhere—a new capability compared to helicopters or air vehicles that require a runway—they monitor wind conditions, assess microclimates, predict the path of fires (or where new fires could start), keep an eye on crew safety, provide secure communications, transmit real-time video, and use thermal sensors in every relevant area. This live spotting system is essential through every part of a fire, providing an early warning system to help scientists identify the location where fresh fires could start, live-track fires underway to anticipate a fire’s next move, and the monitor recently extinguished fires to make sure they don’t reignite.
Past these monitoring capabilities, the drones can carry up to 70 pounds. This is enough carrying capacity to allow them to fly through flames and thick smoke carrying chainsaws, water, shovels, hoses, or any other supplies needed to help combat the blaze. Along with aiding firefighters on the ground, in the coming years the technology is expected to evolve to support active suppression, dropping fire retardant pellets and water from above.
We have only begun to scratch the surface fo the life-saving and ecosystem-saving potential of firefighting drones. For more about the incredible work of Draganfly, the future of this technology, and the role of drones in ensuring our safe future, check out this video from Mashable:
If you’re interested in more informative stories in technology and climate, make sure to take a look at Mashable’s YouTube channel.
To learn more about Draganfly Innovation’s work, humanitarian, environmental, and otherwise, check out their website.
In the near future, we’ll likely see swarms of drones, too, flying together in formation to suppress fires by dropping fire retardant pellets, water, and retardant to keep fires from spreading. While this won’t replace water bombers—planes that fly over the fires dropping massive amounts of water in hopes of putting the fire out—it will be another tool in the arsenal that firefighters can deploy to protect themselves and the ecosystems they fight for, especially in environments that are dangerous for manned aircraft to reach.
It’s more than clear: technology is vital in helping combat the rise of wildfires on a global scale. But did you know that nature is doing its part to be part of the solution, too? From turtles to goats to bison, here are a few more wildfire and climate heroes you should hear about today:
Meet the Wildfire Hero Who Wears a Shell Instead of a Cape
The gopher tortoise may not look like your average hero, but when forest fires threatens their neighbors, their special skill comes in very handy! Here’s how to use your strengths for good.Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
Hungry Goats: The Unlikely Heroes Preventing Wildfires!
Goats combating wildfires? In Australia, communities are teaming up with these hungry helpers to restore their forests. And we’re finding inspiration to solve problems in our own lives along the way!Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
The 2,000-Pound Vegetarians Slowing Climate Change
Some of our best environmental engineers when it comes to winning the race to slow climate change have turned out to be these natural (and very cute) prairie-preserving specialists! Here’s how bison are restoring a previously destroyed landscape and keeping tons of carbon out of our atmosphere along the way.Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
So as the old Ben Franklin adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Luckily for us in the case of wildfires, drones are here to stay on both fronts.
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- MacCarthy, James, et al. “The Latest Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse.” World Resources Institute, 2023, https://www.wri.org/insights/global-trends-forest-fires. Accessed 26 Oct. 2023. ↩
- “Climate Change Indicators: Wildfires | US EPA.” US EPA, July 2016, https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-wildfires. Accessed 26 Oct. 2023. ↩
- Congressional Research Service. Wildfire Statistics. 2021, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/IF10244.pdf. 6
Knowing this, climate scientists are working fast to stop fires before they become widespread, and ideally, before they ignite at all.
There are many natural causes for wildfires—think lightning strikes or dry conditions—but there are many more human-made causes. In fact, a staggering 90% of wildfires in the United States are human-made, 7wfca_inanna. “What Causes Wildfires? | WFCA.” WFCA, 6 July 2022, https://wfca.com/articles/what-causes-wildfires/. Accessed 27 Oct. 2023 ↩
- “Long-Range Surveillance Drone – Draganfly.” Draganfly, 26 Apr. 2023, https://draganfly.com/long-range-surveillance-drone/. Accessed 27 Oct. 2023. ↩
- Mashable. “How Drones Are Changing the Way We Fight Wildfires | Mashable.” YouTube, YouTube Video, 25 Sept. 2023, www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfBWRb-kYy4. Accessed 27 Oct. 2023. ↩