Drones offer help California fires …..
These eyes in the sky may become firefighters’ best tools for combating one of the worst wildfire seasons in state history.
This is part of our Road Trip 2018 summer series “Taking It to Extremes,” which looks at what happens when people mix everyday tech with insane situations.
Smoke is billowing from a five-story window. In between those thick plumes, I know there are two people trapped inside — but I can see only one.
How do I know there’s a second person? From a thermal image that’s being livestreamed from a drone. Thanks to the video’s clear picture of who’s inside the room, incident command instructs a firefighter to climb the ladder and make the rescue.
Fortunately, this isn’t a real fire. It’s a demonstration at a Menlo Park Fire District station in California, showing a crowd of firefighters how new drone imaging technology can help search and rescue operations. In the heart of Silicon Valley, Menlo Park is perfectly situated to test new technology. It’s also received donations from Facebook to buy drones and thermal cameras.
The timing of the demonstration couldn’t be more apt. It’s fire season in California, and thousands of firefighters are battling blazes across the state, like the mammoth Mendocino Complex Fire that’s already torched nearly 423,000 acres and the Carr Fire, which has so far destroyed 1,600 structures and claimed seven lives.
To help win their war against wildfires, state and federal departments are turning to drone missions for reconnaissance and data gathering. The California Air National Guard, for example, is using a military grade UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), called the MQ-9 Reaper, at both the Mendocino Complex and Carr fires. The drone captures live video of the blaze from 20,000 feet and can stay in the air for hours, identifying where the fire is spreading.
No matter if they’re small quadcopters or larger fixed-wing drones, UAVs are becoming an invaluable tool for firefighters to safely identify threats and reduce exposure to dangerous conditions. Some are equipped with lidar technology, which uses pulsed light to measure distances and generate precise, 3D fuel maps that show where fires are most likely to spread.
The Menlo Park Fire District was one of the first in the US to start a drone program. In the four years since, more than 180 fire departments across the country have bought drones for fire and rescue operations. Relatively few have pushed drone usage to the same level as Menlo Park, which has set up a dedicated drone command center and which trains firefighters from around the country to pilot the aerial devices.