UAS in firefighting: how unmanned systems can help keep the environment safe

Avionics and Space


Aerospace and Defense

Firefighting services around the world are constantly innovating, and the recent trend toward the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is no exception. Climate change has been a key factor in increasing the risk and extent of wildfires. Climate change is creating increasingly hotter and drier conditions, increasing the risk of drought and a longer season in which fires are a real risk in many parts of the world.

UAVs, also known as ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or ‘drones’, are fast becoming another tool to use against fires; they are a useful addition to equipment, and many firefighters rely on the information they provide during and after a major fire incident.

UAVs can fly long distances and be equipped with high-definition cameras, thermal imaging sensors and other equipment; they can provide a real-time view of fires on the ground and how they spread. As costs decrease and technology improves, UAV adoption in fire safety is evolving into a standard fire suppression tool. Especially considering how easy it is to deploy.


Uses of unmanned vehicles in fire suppression

The main uses of UAVs in firefighting today are:

  • Fire scene monitoring and assessment
  • Search and Rescue (SAR)
  • Post-fire analysis and scene documentation

The integration of lightweight radiometric thermal sensors with increased capability has revolutionized the amount of information available to a fire scene commander, and information is key when lives are at stake.

Whether planning the entry route to access a building or structure fire or searching for people inside, thermal imaging can “see” through smoke to locate people and hot spots while keeping firefighters safe. When manned platforms are used during such operations, highly skilled pilots are required due to reduced visibility when flying into fire smoke. This risk can be mitigated by using remotely piloted or automatically steered unmanned platforms, which reduces operator stress and fatigue.

UAVs can be very efficient in terms of energy requirements, which becomes essential when fighting large fires that require prolonged operations. This makes them a
relatively green technology with a low carbon footprint.


Case study. The EMU

Spanish Military Emergency Unit (Unidad Militar de Emergencias Española, UME)
is a specific paramilitary force established for missions where intervention is required to preserve the safety of Spanish citizens in cases of natural disaster, high risk or other special public needs.

Despite its broad competence, the EMU is mainly focused on supporting firefighters in dealing with forest fire emergencies. The EMU has a force of more than 4,000 members and uses a wide variety of vehicles, tools and equipment, including UAVs. Among these UAVs is the Spanish A-800 UAV helicopter, which is equipped with the flight control solution from UAV Navigation. The system has several advanced functions, but its main contribution in this role is to provide accurate information to field commanders about the development of a wildfire and, at the same time, reduce the risk to the troops on the ground.


UAS fire suppression applications

Unmanned aerial vehicles have been used for several years to help fight fires.

Working in conjunction with firefighters and other public safety professionals, aircraft manufacturers are introducing products with quick-start features, high reliability, state-of-the-art thermal sensors, longer flight durations and, most importantly, all-weather weatherproofing and all-conditions operation.

The use of artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics and drone technology provide fire departments with a new set of tools to fight fires that are growing in size, frequency and intensity. UAVs are robust tools that can be operated regardless of weather conditions. These tools are also proving to be very useful for firefighters in the urban environment.


Unmanned systems provide situational awareness

A key role of UAS in the firefighting context is to provide situational awareness to commanders during highly confusing situations. These aircraft are useful tools for capturing real-time thermal images of the landscape; heat intensity can help commanders decide where firefighters should establish fire containment lines, and whether they are excavated by bulldozer or by hand.

To help firefighting agencies gain situational awareness, UAVs can help protect personnel and enable rapid mapping for incident response and post-incident recovery. Interestingly, they can also be used to ignite remotely controlled fires to prevent fires from spreading.


How are UAVs useful to firefighters?

Having eyes on the scene and being able to fly the drone to where the access points are located allows crews to fight the fire more efficiently. With more information from the air, incident command control can better direct crew members on scene to extinguish the fire.

The thermal camera provides the essential capability for firefighters to see through smoke and monitor hot spots. UAS are eyes in the sky for firefighters. They can be an essential firefighting tool for people in the fire department, especially in and around urban centers, where a deadly inferno could occur in high-rise buildings.


Flight control system for UAVs and drones

UAVs require flight control software and hardware elements that allow the aircraft to be controlled remotely, either directly by a pilot or autonomously by an on-board computer. UAV flight dynamics are highly variable and nonlinear, so maintaining attitude and stability may require continuous calculation and readjustment of the aircraft’s flight control systems.

UAV Navigation’s flight control solutions include firefighting capabilities. Among the most important are:

  • Guided camera

UAV Navigation autopilots can be fully integrated with cameras and provide advanced capabilities. The incorporation of geo-pointing functions allows the UAS to automatically track the target coordinates provided by a camera, either automatically (object tracking) or manually. This would allow a real-time image of a fire source to be obtained using automatic tracking of the aircraft over it.

  • Flight plan generator for tracking

The operator can easily set up an action plan to allow the UAV to cover a designated area in the most efficient manner. This functionality is strategic for search and rescue missions and during post-fire analysis.

  • Automatic load release

The user can set automatic actions on waypoints while planning the mission. Firefighters could program automatic events such as switch activations or automatic events.

  • 3D flight visualization

3D vision of the flight to know the orography in real time. As mentioned earlier, poor visibility when flying through smoke can create risky situations and jeopardize the mission. UAV Navigation’s flight control system allows the integration of a 3D visualization tool that helps operators increase situational awareness and know the orography in real time.

  • High speed: emergency

Fire suppression requires fast actions, so an easy-to-deploy flight control solution with high-speed applications is mandatory. Professional flight controllers such as UAV Navigation include “multi-gain settings” that allow automatic gain interpolation based on airspeed and help UAS platforms to be present at the fire location very quickly. This would reduce the time to act on the fire and prevent its spread.

All these features make any UAV/UAS a very useful tool to extinguish a fire in the shortest possible time.

Thanks to these and other capabilities in its flight control solutions, UAV Navigation contributes to the evolution of the UAS industry and its applications. Our commitment to the environment focuses not only on our products but also on the way they are produced. We are proud to provide society with easy-to-implement tools that help to sustainably respond to its most basic needs.

Miguel Ángel de Frutos, technical director of UAV Navigation, Grupo Oesía

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