Every summer, I have a front-row seat to hell. I live at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, just east of Los Angeles. During this time of year I can walk out of my house and see hills pockmarked by flames, as if they were covered by the campfires of an invading hoard. All night, the fire engines scream as they rush uphill, while the air smells of cinder and ashes (I keep waiting for a TV weatherman to announce that the air quality for the day is “extra chunky”). Most ominous are the gargantuan columns of grey smoke that dominate the sky like a bad day at Mordor.
As I watch 747s and helicopters circle the mountains like angry mosquitoes, dropping endless amounts of flame retardant and water, I have the same thoughts that anyone who works for a company that makes control units for unmanned systems would have, “Gee all those planes look expensive. Would it be cheaper for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to do that work?”
Firefighting is expensive. One estimate is that for the state of California alone, the costs topped $212 million for 2015. Furthermore, the fire season is growing longer and resources are being stretched thin. Since humans are not winning the war against wild fires, could robots do better?
So far, firefighters are using UAVs for the same reason everyone else is using them, i.e. as an eye in the sky. Many agencies categorized them as disaster relief equipment and seem to be using them strictly for situational awareness. As far as I can tell, efforts to use unmanned systems in a more active role, such as dropping water, are rare and not well developed.
It’s not that UAVs don’t have a significant role in firefighting. It’s that their role currently is extremely negative. Consider this alert that I received from the Monrovia Fire Department:
“One area of concern that has developed recently is the fact that there are privately operated drones that have been violating the air space within which fire response teams are operating. Yesterday, on June 25, 2016, we had to suspend air operations due to private drones flying in the path of firefighting aircraft. It is vitally important to note… fire officials cannot deploy firefighting aircraft when private individuals are flying drones in the fire response locations.”
I was stunned to read this alert. People are flying their hobby-level UAVs into firefighting operations? If you have never lived near a wild fire, it’s hard to describe just how stupid this is. Wild fires are terrifying and the pilots who fight them are genuinely brave. To interfere with them in anyway requires a substantial lack of good sense.
I called up Andy Doyle, 27 year veteran firefighter of Los Angeles County to get his opinion. “It happens every single fire,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before someone is killed.”
According to Andy, when someone flies their private UAV into a firefighting campaign, all air operations cease. Without the thousands of pounds of flame retardant and water being dropped from the sky, land is burned, houses are destroyed, and lives are endangered.
UAVs are exceptionally dangerous to firefighting planes, because of the unique stresses manned aircraft experience. Firefighting planes fly low, slow, and carry huge weights. A helicopter typically carries 300 gallons of water (just over 2500 pounds). To get an idea of how dangerous this is, see video below:
The difficulty of piloting a firefighting plane is further compounded by the need to compensate for updrafts and the poor visibility caused by smoke and ashes. Furthermore, the pilots need to be extraordinarily precise where they drop their loads of water and flame retardant; lives depend on their accuracy. While an poorly piloted UAV may endanger a normal aircraft, they are exceptionally hazardous to fire-fighting planes.
My talk with Andy illuminated the reason why UAVs are not being used as air tankers to fight fires. UAVS are notoriously difficult to fly, because of poor visibility. There was even a famous incident in which a pilot unknowingly flew a Predator UAV upside down. This makes UAVs ill-suited to accurately drop water and flame retardant. Furthermore, it is well-established that UAVs are not as sturdy as manned airplanes; they crash more often. The current generation of UAVs may not have the durability necessary to withstand the stresses that aircraft undergo while fighting fires.
However, these are technical problems, which eventually will be resolved. I am less optimistic about the fixing the essential stupidity of people who use UAVs to recklessly imperil firefighters.