Feds Directed to Use Drones to Fight Wildfires

Photo courtesy of Matt Howard via Unsplash.

Hours before parts of the federal government were to shutdown, the president signed an executive order directing the federal government to boost wildfire prevention by reducing the amount of fuel — that is brush, dead trees and timber —on public lands. The White House also told the agencies involved to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “maximize appropriate use of unmanned aerial systems” to help meet their goals.

Specifically, President Trump ordered the Department of the Interior to treat 750,000 acres of the lands under its control and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to treat 3.5 million of its acres to reduce the fuel load.

“For decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires. These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease, and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires,” Executive Order 13855 says. “Active management of vegetation is needed to treat these dangerous conditions on Federal lands but is often delayed due to challenges associated with regulatory analysis and current consultation requirements.”

The directive is widely seen as a bid to increase logging on Federal lands and may run into challenges.

The order envisions drones being used to “accelerate forest management and support firefighting and post-fire rehabilitation in forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands.”

Drones can be used to locate hot spots and firebreak breaches and then deliver water to put those out. It is not only safer to use drones over active wildfires but unmanned aircraft have the potential to fly at night, greatly expanding the window of time for active containment efforts.

Unmanned aircraft can be useful tools for planting trees in hard-to-reach areas. Drones have also been studied as tools for starting planned, controlled fires to clear out hard-to-kill underbrush. The FAA is considering at least one waiver application for a fire-starter drone proposed by Silver Wings Drone Services of Metairie, Louisiana.