Fire-fighting drones: the potential future of managing wildfires (includes video story)

Smoke-sniffing drones could be the future of fighting wildfires in California thanks to engineers at the University of California, Davis. 

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s goal is to get on the scene quickly and contain 95% of all fires to just 10 acres or less. 

When a wildfire breaks out, early detection is key in stopping the flames from spreading. 

Drones built by a team of mechanical aerospace engineers at UC Davis have the latest technology to help detect wildland blazes as soon as they break out.

“The official name is an Octocopter,” said Prabhesh Ragbir, a UC Davis PhD student. “We have sensors for particulate matter, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide.”

They’re equipped with detectors that can sniff out smoke — much like a search dog’s nose, according to the engineers. 

“You track the scents, and then you track the scents, and you figure out the location of the wildfire,” said Zhaodan Kong, a professor at the university’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.

The drone’s on-board air samplers are so sensitive that they can detect the smoke, even down to the nanomoles, before it becomes visible to cameras and even the human eye. It can then follow the trail, pinpoint the precise origin of the fire and quickly alert firefighters. 

“Our hope is basically we can catch or detect the wildfire as early as possible and that means that the damage caused by fire will be minimized,” Kong said. 

The professor said that the drones would cost a total of approximately $2,000. 

The team has worked with Cal Fire and experimented with the drones on several prescribed burns, which they said has been successful so far. 

The drones have limited flight time, so they’d only be launched during times of high fire danger. 

“You need to show them that it works and then you can gradually incorporate this into their workflow,” said Kong.

Nicole Ardila is a digital broadcasting major at FIU, also pursuing a minor in psychology. She's reported for Caplin News from Washington, D.C. for an NBCU Academy Fellowship and directed the Opinion section for FIU’s student media, PantherNOW. In the future, she hopes to become a photojournalist and producer for documentaries/film to share important stories from across the world.