Photo: AP

Last year the Department of the Interior flew nearly 5,000 drone missions, an 82 percent increase over 2016, according to a new report. These missions supported everything from mapping wildlife to monitoring dams, but they especially aided in fighting wildfires, which burned large swaths of the West during a long and painful fire season in 2017.

The program, which now has a fleet of 312 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), begin in 2010 with just 208 flights.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is a huge proponent of the drones, saying in a statement that he knows they “will continue to make a big difference in firefighting.”

“The UAS program is a perfect example of leveraging technology to fight fires in safer and more efficient ways to ensure we are protecting the men and women on the fire line, members of the public, and local communities,” he said.

The drones—which were used to fight 71 different wildfires last year—are fitted with video cameras and infrared heat sensors that help firefighters monitor blazes in real time. Their ability to fly low and slow and for long periods of time allows them to collect high-resolution imagery that can be used to strategically combat the fire. They can also help firefighters avoid deadly hotspots.

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Mark Bathrick, director of the DOI’s aviation services unit, recently told The Federal Times that “you can send a drone in and find out if someone needs to go in there, if it’s even possible to get in there and, if it is, what’s the best route possible to get in there.”

The department is working on new drones that can help more with prescribed fires, and with flying in especially smoky conditions that traditional firefighting aircraft can’t get to.

Image: BLM

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While drones might seem like obvious firefighting aides, in recent years private drones have actually been more of a hindrance. When unauthorized drones fly over airspace being used by wildfire-fighting aircraft, those aircraft have to land due to safety precautions. This can slow down fire response time during crucial intervals where the fires could be contained.

The DOI has been working to address this issue by providing wildfire location data to private drone operators to prevent interference.

As the wildfire seasons get longer and more intense thanks in part to climate change, the costs of fighting these fires is spiraling out of control. As Congress slowly grapples with a better way of funding fire suppression, drones offer a rare opportunity to save some cash. According to the DOI, operating a drone costs about $50 an hour, whereas a manned helicopter is closer to $1,500.