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Why aren’t drones helping the fire fighting efforts?


With wildfires breaking out all along the Front Range and resources to fight them strung out from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, it would seem to be a no-brainer to call out the drones for everything from recon and communication to infrared mapping and live video. But despite that several of these unmanned aircraft are available at CU-Boulder and the U.S. Geological Survey in Lakewood—which has in its fleet MQ-9 Predators, which are used in combat operations in the Middle East—the drones are grounded and will almost certainly stay that way.

As detailed in the current issue of Yellow Scene, CU is home to one of the country’s busier unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research programs. Its fleet of Tempest UAS are specifically designed to fly into dangerous territory, to get closer to tornadoes than is safe for manned aircraft.

But the Federal Aviation Administration carefully regulates drone flights, approving them only for specific geographic areas through the issuance of a certificate of authorization, or CoA. None of CU’s or USGS’s CoAs cover the areas currently on fire.

Even if they did, or if the FAA were to issue an emergency CoA for the affected regions, it’s still not likely drones would be called into service. The main concern is safety.

“It’s partially because of the congestion of the airspace, with all the tankers and observation planes and helicopters and news copters,” said Mike Hutt, the UAS program director for the USGS in Lakewood. “Mixing manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace isn’t generally a great idea.”

As the use of drones domestically becomes more common (and controversial), researchers in the UAS field have been pushing to expand their capabilities to support wildfire-fighting efforts. NASA has flown some Predators over wildfires in California and USGS operators have demonstrated how useful drones can be over controlled burns. But the technology has yet to be embraced.

“It’s something we’re working on developing,” Hutt said, “but the time of the crisis isn’t a great time to be introducing new technology. We’ve been working with the Forest Service and BLM about some ideas of how UAS could help fire fighting in the future.

“But we don’t currently have anything going on.”

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