The world is on fire.
Or so it might seem for those being affected by or following the stories of one of the worst ‘wildfire seasons’ of California’s history. Though the state has received large amounts of outside help in volunteer firefighters, there is often little the volunteers can do if they cannot find a suitable angle from which to attack the blaze.
For example, just one of the many blazes that have hit the state so far, the gargantuan Mendocino Complex Fire, has already scorched over 400,000 acres of land. Then, there’s the infamous Carr Fire, which has already cost the state seven lives.
And a simulation in the Californian Menlo Park Fire District station has some new ideas on how the everyday technology that is remote-controlled flying drones can help assist volunteers during their dangerous search and rescue objectives.
One simulation shows a building being consumed by flames. Visible through the smoke clouds is a single person trapped inside a high-rise room, but thermal imaging provided by a nearby drone also shows a second person inside. A crowd of firefighters observes the drone feed from the ground, using this information to aid them in their plan to approach and conquer this scenario.
And this fire station has been adamant about showing off these new ideas, receiving positive feedback from many onlookers and social media users. The volunteer station has received many donations via social media that will reportedly be put towards the purchase of drones and drone equipment.
But the drones that will be employed in these fire team rescue missions won’t be your everyday commercial drones designed for personal use; The Californian Air National Guard has plans to employ the services of several military-grade UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) recon drones to aid the teams in gathering information on and finding ways through the many life or death challenges they face.
The district is, however, considering the use of such commercial drones due to the myriad of different angles commercial drones can reach; While a Military UAV drone captures an image from 20,000 feet in the air and is useful for identifying the likely path of a blaze, commercial drones could be used to glance inside of buildings or under bridges, capturing views that the UAV would not be able to.
The Menlo Park Fire Station began this drone program four years ago, and, according to CNET, was the first-ever fire station to use such technology. Since then, nearly 200 other stations have also used drone technology to some degree, but few have endorsed it to the degree that Menlo does. Menlo has its own built-in drone control room and gives new volunteers special training on how to pilot different types of drones and use them effectively.
Firefighters are also experimenting with new technologies that will allow drones to aid in different ways. At the moment, drones are primarily used to gather information about the blaze itself, however there are plans to develop a kind of full-radar system that allows drones to connect firefighters to other firefighters, granting them a real-time view on where their fellow team members are and allowing them to better keep track of their team and coordinate their actions.
In addition, new mapping software is being tested that will automatically identify and highlight important environmental hazards that may complicate the firefighting process. Such hazards include downed power lines, ruptured fuel lines, and many more. The mapping software may also allow the drones to predict the path a fire will take based on a number of variables recorded via satellite tracking, allowing California’s best line of defense to attack a problem before it starts.
While drones may be a valuable tool for firefighting, the main downside to their use is the high cost of the new technology. In addition, a set of relatively new and unproven technologies will have a hard time making a case for themselves when it comes time for fire stations to decide where their budget goes. While drone plans are ambitious, their real worth and practicality have, for the most part, yet to be seen.