Drones being used in fight against California wildfires

Posted Dec 11, 2017 by Ken Hanly
The horrible fires over Los Angeles, San Diego, and Ventura counties that have destroyed over 500 structures and forced over 200,000 to flee is now being surveyed by drones which can track the path of the fire and survey damaged property.
A burnt out house is seen after the Skirball wildfire swept through the exclusive enclave of Bel Air...
A burnt out house is seen after the Skirball wildfire swept through the exclusive enclave of Bel Air, California, on December 7, 2017
Los Angeles Fire Dept. using drones
Chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Ralph Terrazas said at a recent news conference: “For the first time ever, we’re going to use our drones,"
Shortly after Terrazas' remarks, a firefighter launched one of two quadcopters and flew it over the adjacent Skirball fire. The fire destroyed at least six mansions in the luxurious Bel Air area.
As can be seen from the attached video, the drones give a clear detailed view of the fire damage from their excellent cameras.
The drones also gave the firefighters information on remaining hotspots and a view of the exact path of the fire.
Although the Skirball fire is tiny compared to many other wildfires burning in the LA area, it nevertheless provided a good test run for the drones as it is near homes and the 405 freeway. It showed how much detail the drones can see.
There were two tests each lasting about a half hour.
Special waivers needed to launch drones
The emergency services need to get a special certificate from the FAA. They apply for "Certificates of Waiver or Authorization" for specific missions. This is necessary to avoid violating rules restricting the use of the drones and the emergency services are bound by these rules just as are commercial enterprises.
Drones soon pay for themselves
Although the department spent $50,000 for 8 drones, the drones eliminate the need to rent infrared cameras that are attached to helicopters. The helicopter flights equipped with cameras have very steep operating costs compared to the drones.
According to Dronefly a vendor of these drones, 347 different public services bought drones from 2009 to 2017. Sixty nine were fire departments.
London firefighters used a drone during the Grenfell Tower blaze last June to get a good idea of where the flames were spreading and where residents might be trapped.
Ordinary fixed wing planes sometimes cannot operate against southern California fires
At times the Santa Ana winds are so strong that fixed wing planes cannot operate. The job of dropping fire retardant falls to helicopter pilots. The giant Boeing 747 SuperTanker is often not of much use given the weather and the terrain.
Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky, and Aurora Flight Sciences are developing autonomous helicopters who might be able to do some of the work that piloted helicopters do now.
Flying cars
Added to the mix of drones and autonomous helicopters there may be flying cars.
Firefighters around the world are watching as vertical takeoff and landing vehicles are being developed.
Others are interested in their development as well. The vehicles will be great for shuttling people around cities. They would be useful in emergencies and would circumvent traffic jams. They could also airlift victims from burning buildings to hospitals. They would have lower operating costs than helicopters and simpler controls.
Wired takes a look at some 10 different flying car concepts in development. It may be some time before any of these are commercially viable and regulations exist governing their use.