What can the military learn from forest fire-fighting drones?

Forest fires are a fuel-dependent threat. Shaped by the vagaries of wind and weather, sparked by lightning or careless campers, and a persistent threat to humans that live on the edge of wooded areas, tackling forest fires has lead humans to a proactive approach.

One of those proactive options is burning the fuel first, either in a prescribed burn or as a way to stop a fire as it advances. And to do that burning, government agencies like the Department of the Interior are turning to drones. Drones releasing fireballs.

The military applications appear just a quick iteration away.

“The first unmanned aerial prescribed burners were developed by a team at the University of Nebraska to carry a load of the fire-ready balls, automatically pierce each and inject the glycol, and complete the drop,” wrote Susie Cagle at The Guardian. “That research turned into the Ignis system developed by Drones Amplified, a private company, in partnership with the Department of Interior. Over time, the dragons’ payload has expanded to 13 lb of eggs.”

The drone of choice for the fireball payload is the Matrice 600, a DJI-made hexacopter aimed at commercial and industrial users. The Forest Service used Matrice drones to release fireballs to fight a forest fire near Flagstaff, Arizona, in June, and the drones have been used to fight a fire southeast of Mono Lake, near the California/Nevada border. There is also the dedicated WASP flamethrower-toting drone, which can perform a similar function.

Drones are valuable for fighting fires in much the same way that drones are useful in a firefight. Remotely piloted, the craft can get into positions where it is especially risky for humans to go, and operate at unusual hours or other rough conditions.

The loss of a drone in such a disaster is easier to recover from than the loss of a human-carrying vehicle, and the scale of the drones make them more expendable. Military planners and designers looking for inspiration might turn to these workhorse quadcopters, which can perform some difficult tasks for civilian agencies.

The utility of a hexacopter that can disperse an incendiary or other useful payload over an area is perhaps obvious. This summer, a security firm in China showed off a similar design releasing a payload of caltrops. On the tactical level, the drones have real potential as an area denial tool.

Besides the extension of a flying machine to a weapons platform, firefighting drones offer two useful lessons. The first is about operation in dangerous and difficult circumstances, with sensors and controls built to work despite the infernos above which the drones can operate. The second is that, for military purposes, developing a multirotor drone likely means a specific Pentagon-funded project, or continuously applying for waivers to acquire commercial off-the-shelf technologies.

Watch a video of the IGNIS drone system below:

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