Canada Working to Combine Manned and Unmanned Aviation for Fighting Wildfires

An wildfire rages unchecked in Alberta, Canada

Canada has a problem. There have been 1,329 wildfires in Alberta this year. 834 of them have been started by humans. The result has been 9 millions liters of fire retardant pumped by pilots flying 30,998 hours of firefighting missions. This has gotten expensive.

Alberta's five-year average for aircraft costs in wildfire management is approximately $128 million, so it is important for fire officials to look at all types of technologies that could save money and lives, according to Patrick McIlwaine, a provincial aviation specialist with the Alberta government’s Wildfire Management Branch

Canadian authorities are now exploring how unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV's) could help save millions of dollars while also reducing the risk to firefighting pilots flying dangerous sorties over these outland blazes.

But just how to integrate the UAV's is still to be determined.

“Airspace in a wildfire is a very complex and dynamic environment and it’s often crowded with multiple aircrafts operating all within a very small space,” said Jim Thomasson, a drone researcher with FP Innovations. “The only time when we are seeing UAVs in an active fire situation is when a hobbyist or media shuts down the whole operation.”

“Is there a place for unmanned systems in fighting fires? Yes, there is,” said McIlwaine.

British Columbia has tested the use of drones over the past two fire seasons and announced in August it is adding them to the province’s firefighting arsenal. UAV's will be used mainly at night when most helicopters and planes are grounded, drones will be used to track fire fronts and identify hot spots that “increases the level of safety” for firefighters on the ground.

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