Hobbyist drone operators and opportunist journos are causing havoc in airborne fire-fighting missions quarters – placing a risk to the safety of manned aircraft, and even bringing their time-sensitive missions to a standstill. Sadly, what is an extremely forward-thinking technological advancement is being deemed the bad boy of aerospace. From increased situational awareness to less risk to life, let’s look at how drones can assist, rather than impede, traditional aviation-based firefighting.
As we move away from the wildfire season in the Northern Hemisphere and approach it here in Australasia, the periods seem to bleed together. Fire departments are now faced with year-round battles and need to look at ways they can do their jobs more safely and effectively. Technologies, like drones, are a vital tool to help improve mission outcomes and to keep more people safe.
Drones have an exceptional ability to support wildfire relief efforts, however, despite their potential for good, they’re often seen as the guerrilla of the industry.
The media is full of examples of drones being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2016 alone, 23 cases in the USA reached Federal prosecution status and a significantly larger number of violations have occurred in addition to this.
When drones are flown in close proximity to aircraft, there is a risk they could crash into the front windshield or hit a rotor blade, causing a catastrophe for an aircraft and for people on the ground.
Fire departments are issuing pleas to stop flying recreational drones anywhere near the blazes, and it is these hobbyist drone operators who’re dampening the reputation of technology that has a huge potential to be used for good.
As Tony Mecham, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s San Diego unit put it, “If you fly, we cannot.”
Sadly, these are not isolated events!
The race for regulation
Australia was the first nation in the world to have a comprehensive set of drone safety regulations. These were based on model aircraft rules that were put in place in 2002.
However, Peter Gibson, Corporate Communications Manager at Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) outlines that there is a necessity for reviewing the drone rules due to the speed in which they’ve developed in the past few years.
“Issues being considered are drone registration, mandatory training for all drone flyers and geofencing technology,” Gibson says.
So far this year there have been close to 30 cases of drones being used unsafely, including flying over populous areas, in restricted zones, flying at night, and beyond the visual line of sight. The inappropriate use of drones is what is causing havoc.
We cannot deny that technology is advancing at a great rate of knots but it is important that emergency services and first responders are able to trust that these advancements are there to help, rather than hinder their work.
Drones in their best light
Drones are no longer just understood as a military tool, they’re now responding to natural disasters, aiding conservation, and delivering life-saving supplies. Drones will be a tool that continues to support ground-based and aerial firefighters, so they can do their jobs more effectively, without placing a significant risk to their lives.
Drones will deliver increasingly important commercial and community outcomes.
“Drones can do risky tasks without putting pilots at risk, such as low flying and flying in poor conditions,” Gibson says.
In firefighting missions, drones outfitted with an infrared camera can show images of dead or live vegetation to pinpoint which areas could quickly catch fire and need to be cleared. The infrared cameras can peer through thick smoke and walls to identify hot spots that firefighters should either keep away from or deal with immediately. They can monitor the situation from a high vantage point, thus giving firefighters an upper hand in dealing with the situation.
Essentially, drones have given firefighters an extra set of ultra-powerful eyes that not only help fight these blazes but keep their members safe.
Firefighters are also using technology to wrangle data to be more efficient in their jobs. This data is then collected and shared with groups such as NAFC (National Aerial Fire-fighting Centre) in Australia, and trends and patterns can be analysed so groups can be best prepared for upcoming seasons. It is about gathering as much information as possible to help groups battle these increasingly demanding blazes in a safe and effective way.
Drones can also assist inspectors who’re checking aftereffects of a fire in areas that are still too dangerous for firefighters to explore. In the case of a wildfire, there could still be hot spots or small fires that need to be dealt with immediately. Their ability to assist in information and data gathering is immense.
Innovate and regulate
The rate of drone innovation is hugely exciting, and their ability to support relief efforts is going to transform the work of first responders globally.
Issues arise when drones jeopardize safety, and these issues tend to result from a disregard for the regulations that surround drone use. That means we need to get the balance right between protecting the safety of the public while allowing drones to operate as widely as possible.
Peter Gibson believes the key to ensuring that the drone industry can continue to innovate while ensuring safer skies, is for drone operators to fly according to the safety rules.
“If people don’t operate safely and responsibly it is inevitable that society will demand tighter drone regulations and restrictions. Be creative with your drone but don’t put people, property and aircraft at risk,” says Gibson.
Working together in joyous harmony
The statistics do not lie. Wildfires are becoming increasingly widespread and relentless. Additionally, the population is growing, and in turn, the boundaries of cities in metro areas are moving out and out. We are seeing residential areas encroaching on the country that wants to burn. These factors are adding increasing pressure on those who operate in harm’s way – and because of this, there’s more pressure on fire agencies to offer a long-term service to better keep people, communities and housing, safe.
But we also need to look to technology to find ways to help keep our first responders safe. Drones offer a great opportunity to assess information from significant incidents and large-scale events that can provide additional situational awareness to those on the ground. This information-gathering capability can help keep firefighters and other responders from un-necessary danger.
Let’s work with drones, not against them.
For more information, go to www.tracplus.com