Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Drones: The next firefighting tool

By Ryan Handy Published: July 26, 2013

On June 23, three days after the Black Forest fire was declared "out," a Cessna plane carrying a load of drone technology detected a large spot fire north of Swan Road.

It was smoldering over a gas pipeline and fire crews hadn't seen it. With infrared imaging, they found it in an hour and extinguished it.

It's that kind of technology that Black Forest fire Chief Bob Harvey thinks could transform firefighting of the future.

"The problem is, we're still fighting wildfire the way we did in the 1950s," he said on Friday, after taking another ride in the same Cessna, loaded up with special communication, fire mapping and weather systems technology.

Harvey isn't alone in his frustration. Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet recently requested that a congressional proposal to for test "drone" or unmanned aircraft systems be expanded to include planes that could be used for wildfire detection. UAS Colorado, an unmanned aircraft systems group, is pushing for Colorado to get some of the Congressionally approved drones to incorporate into firefighting efforts around the state. Twenty-four states are in the running to get the test aircraft, six of which could be approved for flight by the Federal Aviation Administration by Dec. 31. Bennet has requested that two more be added to that group, for Colorado's firefighting use.

Stan Vanderwerf, executive director of UAS Colorado, knows that the word "drone" carries sinister connotations. But, drone-like technology has been used in Colorado for years, he said. Eight colleges or universities in the state use the technology for real-time weather data.

"There are great capabilities in Colorado," Vanderwerf said on Friday. Those include possibly fighting wildland fires, but the technology already is being applied to search and rescue efforts, monitoring livestock as well as environmental studies. The Mesa County Sheriff's Office is using unmanned aircraft technology for search and rescue already, Vanderwerf said.

The system that Harvey used on the Black Forest fire is owned by David Yoel, of the American Aerospace Airborne Systems Group. After the Type 1 Great Basin Incident Management Team handed over control of the Black Forest fire to lower-level Type 3 team, Yoel kept offering a free analysis of the fire by placing his technology in a rented Cessna plane.

Harvey decided to give it a try - he and the incident commander of the fire were particularly swayed by the "no cost" aspect. But what was intended as a merely routine look at the fire delivered pivotal information to fire crews, which located a fire more quickly than usual.

The drone's infrared technology can see through smoke; the drones themselves can fly in some conditions when air tankers cannot. They can sense the slightest temperature differences between objects.

They also deliver real-time data - with the current infrared technology used by the U.S. Forest Service, the images must be downloaded after the flight, and flights can only be done at night. Yoel has already completed five research missions for the forest service, using the same technology he used in Black Forest.

Particularly for smaller fire agencies, that don't have a Type 1 team, the drone technology could make a big difference in the first hours of a fire, Harvey said. In the Black Forest fire, Robin and Marc Herklotz likely lost their lives within the first two hours of the fire's start.

In Waldo Canyon, fire crews hiking around the hills on foot spent nearly two days searching for the origin of the Waldo Canyon fire, and didn't find it.

The drones, because they are flown by remotely, are also much cheaper and more realistic firefighting tools for agencies without a lot of money. Yoel and Vanderwerf couldn't pinpoint the exact cost difference; they said the Mesa County drone fleet cost as much as squad car.

But the program is still nascent; it could be months before Colorado knows if it will get congressional approval to use the technology in firefighting. The rules of airspace use might also have to be adjusted, because current regulations do not allow unmanned and manned aircraft to fly in the same zone.

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