Drones aid foresters

  • Florida Forest Service personnel prepare a drone for a test flight in the Withlacoochee State Forest recently. Photo courtesy of John Kern
    Florida Forest Service personnel prepare a drone for a test flight in the Withlacoochee State Forest recently. Photo courtesy of John Kern

Two drones are on test runs in Florida to scope out firefighters on the ground and record prescribed burns from above. 

Although drones aren’t yet utilized in Nassau County, the Florida Forest Service has two drones that are sent out as part of a testing phase elsewhere in the state, including Hernando County and the Withlacoochee Forestry Center, according to FFS Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Robert Chase. The project began in 2019. 

“We believe the greatest potential for use of drones in the Florida Forest Service to be in the realm of forest management activities such as prescribed fire, monitoring timber sales and surveying forest landscapes for forest health issues,” Chase said. “We anticipate using a drone for helping with ignition on prescribed burns on our state forests. There are additional attachments that we could also utilize that would allow us to do some thermal imaging. This would be helpful in our mop-up phases to see where pockets of heat may remain in a wildfire area, allowing us to better concentrate our efforts. We hope to be able to utilize a drone locally in the future for those activities.”

Nassau County utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft or a helicopter when fighting fires because planes can cover greater distances than drones. 

“Our plane will fly from the southern end of Clay County to the northern end of Nassau looking for fires within two hours. A drone does not have that type of travel capability,” according to Chase. 

Drones can still be used in some instances. 

“For smaller, localized fires, drones have the potential of providing critical information in a short time period, allowing the helicopters to stay available for larger, more complex fires,” he said. “For aerial prescribed burns, we typically use a helicopter.”

The helicopter has at least two firefighters on board when in use. A drone provides fire ignition across large areas and can reduce risks to firefighters who take flight. 

“A helicopter has a much larger flight range and greater flight time, which is critical in a wildfire situation that may span thousands of acres and take extended periods of time to suppress,” Chase said. “Helicopters also have the capability to drop water. Currently, drones do not have that capability. Both provide staff on the ground with excellent intel of fire behavior, fuels and terrain. Both can also serve as lookouts for our firefighters, providing us a live view of their location.”

A single drone equipped with a thermal camera and fire system that provides fire ignition from the air costs about $45,000. 

A drone is more economical to operate and maintain, but it probably won’t ever replace traditional aircraft, according to Chase. 

“The drone would provide a cost-savings in that it would reduce staff travel time for forest management activities and allow us to reduce the use of our planes and helicopters for non-emergency activities,” he said. “However, it cannot perform all the tasks our planes and helicopters can. While there is a cost-savings, and we believe it will be a great tool, it is not capable of replacing our helicopters or planes. We see the drones as another tool in the toolbox that would increase efficiencies and provide safer working environments during certain tasks while augmenting the success of our aerial resources in the fire arena.”

The FFS allows media and other preapproved entities to use drones, if incident commanders believe it to be beneficial. 

“It would most likely be used to gather intel on the fuel types or to provide command staff with a visual update on the firefighters in the woods,” Chase said. “They will also allow the media to gather footage when it does not interfere with tactical operations.”

Drones are also restricted when and if they are used over wildfires. 

“The most important rule is there can be no other aircraft up at the same time, including our helicopters or planes,” he said. “That is a huge safety risk. That is why it is so critical the public does not use their personal drones over and around an active wildfire. Regulations require we land our aircraft (or vacate the air space) immediately while that drone is in the air. That could mean we have to stop dropping water on a threatened house or worse. We want the public to know having some cool pictures of a fire is not worth that safety risk to our pilots and firefighters.”

Drones could be utilized on a broader scale in the future. 

“Now that we have established there are clear benefits to have drones engaged in prescribed fire activities, we now must work on determining, ‘How do we successfully integrate that type of technology at the statewide level?’ There are federal and state regulations that we must follow and integrate into our policy and procedures before we can successfully adopt the program,” Chase said.