Summer wildfire season is in full swing across North America, and the question of the utility of drones is once again in the headlines. The technology has proponents on both sides, but it has also been linked to several incidents, including the grounding of critical aircraft in a firefighting effort in Arizona.
A key point of differentiation in this discussion is the use of personal drones, similar to the one mentioned in the article above, and commercial drones designed to serve a specific purpose in operations, similar to military or first responder deployments. The problem that firefighters face is the unauthorized use of personal drones, which can create dangerous situations for support aircraft like helicopters and tanker planes. Because firefighting aircraft fly at such low altitudes, they share the same airspace as commercial or personal drones, and at that altitude, one instance of interference can be deadly.
A recent Quartz article pointed out the correlation between drone interference and the effect it can have on the people most impacted: civilians and the firefighters themselves:
The drone problem has plagued fire departments for the last few years; In 2016, during Utah’s massive Saddle fire, a drone prevented firefighting planes from taking off—if the planes had been able to attack the fire from above, people would not have needed to be evacuated, according to Utah governor Gary Herbert.
So far, in 2017, there have been 17 incidents of unauthorized drone disturbance in wildfire areas. In 2016, 40 such occurrences were recorded.
In Colorado, firefighting crews are figuring out the most effective ways to use authorized unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to aid fire suppression tactics. When used in an official capacity, drones can be extremely useful. They can be used to survey landscape during a lightning storm when manned aircraft are grounded, or they can be used to deliver supplies to ground crews working in remote areas. Further, with new infrared technology, drones can be used to essentially automate the response protocol process to identify fires with the greatest threat potential, and dispatch the necessary resources before the fires explode out of control. Other leading-edge UAS applications for firefighters include drones that can be pre-programmed with Google Maps flight plans prior to launch, or drones that can stay in the air for hours with greater line-of-sight communications than ever before.
The true difference between unauthorized and authorized UAS in wildfire fighting situations is the communication capabilities. When deployed correctly, authorized UAS can use TDMA technology to communicate with other aircraft in the area and ensure that no collisions or interference incidents occur. TDMA is a frequency channel access technique for shared communication networks, essentially enabling a more sophisticated way to drive Point-to-Multipoint communications. It allows multiple transceivers to access and share a single radio frequency channel without interference by dividing the signal into different transmission time slots. This enables swarming applications that enable multiple unmanned systems to operate autonomously, in tandem.
For many personal drone users, the temptation to use this emerging technology to capture images or video is strong. Better cameras, greater operating distances and stronger communication capabilities have created a tool that can be both fun and useful for the average user. However, for wildland firefighters, the use of these unauthorized drones pose a serious threat to both their safety and the safety of the civilians they are tasked with protecting.