Fighting Northwest Wildfires with SUAS

As wildfire danger continues to increase in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the Ryka UAS team looks to meet the growing interest in the implementation of unmanned aircraft for Northwest Wildfires.

The two worst ever fire seasons in Washington State history were ignited in 2014 and 2015. Last year, 10 million acres were burned and 4,600 houses were destroyed in Washington State wildfires alone. These ever-increasing totals are not expected to ease up in the coming years as the climate trends towards warmer weather. A study conducted by Headwaters Economics this past April shows that a 1° F increase in the average temperature will cause a 25% increase in the number of northwest wildfires yearly and a 35% increase in the total acreage burned.

Drone Fire Resource Mapping

Accounting for the risk, The US Forest Service will reportedly grow their firefighting funds from 50% of the overall budget to 67 % within the next ten years. A portion of this extra spending will be allocated for the use of unmanned aircraft systems. Statements from the Department of the Interior indicate that drone usage in firefighting will begin to increase this summer, with consistent growth in the years to come. The application of drones to support wildfire responders covers a large spectrum of possibilities. Drones can vastly improve the safety of a firefighting operation gathering vital information from hazardous locations that are too dangerous to be visited in person. Many of the tasks that lead to firefighter deaths can be replaced by drone operation. With Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) in place in the airspace above active wildfires, drones with proper government approval are permitted to fly well above their typical 400-foot regulatory ceiling. This permissible altitude can be utilized to gain a high vantage point, where a comprehensive visual overview of the wildfire area can be instrumental in coordinating the operation. Closer to the action, the drones can use infrared cameras to fly through thick smoke and identify fire hotspots and locate civilians on the ground in need of search and rescue. The infrared-equipped drones can also fly in the predawn hours where manned aircraft cannot, identifying hotspots through the smoke and darkness that can be targeted by manned-operations immediately upon sunrise before the daytime air currents cause the fires to spread.

The Ryka UAS team continues to research and develop its firefighting drone techniques and technologies for the upcoming wildfire season.

The capabilities currently being developed and employed by Ryka include fixed-wing surveillance aircraft with hours of flight time, infrared and hyperspectral instrumentation. The team is in the process of acquiring certification for extended flight hours, with the permission to fly at nautical dawn, potentially increasing the window of opportunity for collecting time-sensitive information before the sun rises. Ryka has worked with agencies that could use drone services in a number of emergency scenarios, including wildfire fighting and miscellaneous search and rescue. The Department of the Interior, another agency heavily involved in wildfire control, has mentioned plans to implement a private contracting system for firefighting drones.
Ultimately, the use of drones in wildland firefighting will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of wildfire help to keep firefighters out of danger. Continue to check in regularly for updates as we develop our services.