How Firefighting Drones Are Saving Lives

Have you ever been affected by the tragedy of a fire? Hopefully, the answer is “no.”

But, in places like the Western U.S. and other hotspots around the world, fires are an annual occurrence.

These natural, and sometimes human-caused disasters, are a global problem whose destructive powers can’t be understated.

Making matters worse, climate change is directly magnifying the problem.

Recently, extreme fires erupted in Portugal (2017), the U.S. (2017, 2018), Greece (2018), and Australia (2019, 2020), just to name a few.

Those fires took lives, caused billions of dollars of damages, and led to massive deforestation.

The 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, for example, burned over 46 million acres of forest while destroying over 10,000 structures.

They also burned 53% of the Gondwana world heritage sites and raised air pollution levels in New South Wales to 20 times the healthy limit. 

Fighting these destructive blazes is the responsibility of thousands of brave firefighters and other first responders.

Most of us can only imagine how difficult the task of preventing and fighting these fires is, and they need every tool at their disposal.

Now, there’s a new addition to the firefighters’ toolbox: firefighting drones.

Whether before, during, or after an event, UAVs offer major boosts to emergency units.

Here’s how.

Pre-Fire Drone Uses

Of course, preventing wildfires is always the goal.

In preparation, firefighters and forestry professionals conduct wildfire mitigation operations each year.

Typical activities include clearing dead trees, building firebreaks, and conducting controlled burns.  

To maximize limited resources, planners need current pictures of potential hotspots.

For these mapping and surveying needs, when properly equipped, drones are the perfect tools for providing survey-level accuracy.

3D maps created by UAVs can help identify the best locations for focused operations. 

Additionally, drones using multispectral cameras and LiDAR help detect diseases in plants. Dead and dying vegetation quickly dries out, becoming the perfect fuel for wildfires.

But firefighting drones equipped with these specialized optics can identify areas affected by drought, parasites, or invasive species.

Using the data collected by drones, forestry professionals better prevent trees from becoming kindling.

Using Firefighting Drones During Wildfires 

Tragically, firefighters die in the line of duty every year, and many more are injured.

The key to keeping firefighters safe is situational awareness. With the ability to zip around dangerous areas with ease, drones are unmatched eyes in the sky.  

Standard cameras on firefighting drones can capture real-time video for commanders on the ground.

This video feed helps direct the flow of people and equipment to needed areas or out of harm’s way. 

Drones can also access obscure areas that are difficult to reach.

Additionally, when equipped with thermal cameras, UAVs see much more than firefighters on their own.

During wildfires, heavy, thick smoke often blankets the area for miles on end, obscuring visibility.

But, firefighting drones can identify hotspots through the smoke and help direct firefighters to the location.

Even firefighters and vulnerable civilians can be spotted through the air with the help of thermal imaging, guiding rescuers to the area.


While many uses focus on gather visual data, other problems require unique solutions.

For example, when industrial fires erupt, black carbon (BC) nanoparticles are formed during the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons, like plastics.

BC is known to be harmful to respiratory and cardiovascular health, and contributes to air pollution and global warming.

Knowing just how toxic a smokey area is critical to keep people safe. 

In the past, this meant putting first responders into harm’s way to gather samples from ground level.

Now, a new program – Project FIREDRONE, aims to change that.

Firedrone, coo-financed by the European Commission through the INTERREG France Channel England programme, contributing 70% of the funding (Consortiq contributes 30% of own funding to the program), equips drones with the sensors necessary to detect and deliver this critical data in real-time.

Firefighting drones like these can directly protect the health and safety of emergency personnel everywhere. 

Post-Fire Uses

Even after the flames are extinguished, drones’ usefulness continues.

Two of the best examples are event reconstruction and insurance claims

Before UAVs, trying to reconstruct the scene of a fire was primarily accomplished with photographs, a video camera, and stacks of reports.

Now, drones easily create 2D and 3D maps of an area after a fire is out. 3D maps, in particular, can act as digital evidence.

Through this data, investigators and firefighters can revisit the scene anytime they wish.

This precise data is used in training and even legal prosecution of criminals, such as arsonists. 

Rebuilding after a fire starts with processing insurance claims.

One of the most significant delays in filing an insurance claim is assessing the damage.

An insurance inspector may need several days to collect the information required for a claim investigation without a drone.

But, with the aid of drones, the process becomes much faster.

The data captured by drones is typically of higher quality and more representative of the entire structure.

The Takeaways

Firefighters have one of the most challenging jobs imaginable, selflessly putting themselves at risk to protect their community.

Any time a tool is available to improve both safety and efficiency, you need to take a hard look at its potential.

With firefighting drones, that’s exactly the benefit you’re getting.

Whether gathering data for better forest management, or detecting the vulnerable beneath clouds of smoke, firefighting drones provide speed and safety when it’s needed most.

UAVs are helpful in all phases of fire management and are ushering in a new era of combating wildfires around the world. 

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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