Eyes in the Sky


Editor's note: This blog was first published on February 25, 2019.

Wildfire season is coming—well, it’s never really over—and the US military has some new ideas about how to fight the inevitable blazes that erupt; it’s planning to use artificial intelligence to outsmart them.

A couple of weeks ago, the Pentagon announced a pilot project that will use aerial video and still images of fires, mainly from drones, along with algorithms that can predict a fire’s most likely path so that resources can be deployed more effectively. And according to this article, the Department of Interior also used unmanned aerial vehicles in dealing with 71 different wildfires in 2017, involving more than 700 drone missions.

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Although most of those missions involved predicting a fire’s direction and relaying that information to firefighters, the article also reports that the Department of Interior conducted more than 4,000 other flights for different purposes. These include mapping, wildlife surveys, and search and rescue efforts. Plans are in the works to use larger unmanned aircraft to actually extinguish the fires—helicopters to dump fire-suppressing materials around the clock, for example, and possibly even to start prescribed burns, missions that are risky for pilots to carry out. (Using drones, the article notes, is also cheaper than using aircraft with human pilots.)

What opportunities do you see for drones to make post-fire remediation efforts easier or more efficient? We already use them for site inspections to determine regulatory compliance and to find trouble spots; how would you deploy them in a burned area to prioritize erosion control efforts and, eventually, revegetation strategies?

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