Each summer and early fall the United States and China face massive destructive wildfires, with devastating consequences for homes and property, which each year are becoming worse. But there’s an important difference in how the two countries are responding to this growing challenge. America continues to rely heavily – and stubbornly — on conventional manned aircraft, especially helicopters and small airplanes, to try to contain its blazes – with mixed success. By contrast, China has begun pioneering the use of sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles in a variety of fire-fighting roles – reducing the scope of the threat and containing the damage more quickly.
Consider the extraordinary array of drone capabilities that Beijing deployed recently to contain a raging wildfire near Chongqing, southwest China’s largest city. The blaze raged through the mountainous forests surrounding the city, placing its 31 million residents – and numerous high-rise office and apartment complex – at risk. But China reacted quickly, sending a veritable swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles out to fight the blaze on several levels. Specially-equipped surveillance drones flew into the thick of the fire yielding critical data on its speed and likely trajectory, allowing firefighters to plan and target their response within hours. Other drones began seeding the clouds above the fire with special chemicals to stimulate artificial rainfall, which helped limit the size and scope of the blaze. Cargo drones, meanwhile, delivered food and water and other critical supplies to firefighters on the front lines, allowing them to work in continuous cycles.
China’s call for help was also answered by local residents. Thousands of civilian volunteers suddenly appeared out of nowhere to assist the official effort. They included hundreds of local residents that agreed to chop trees to create firebreaks and dozens of off-road mountain bikers that delivered supplies to the most remote and inaccessible areas high above the city. Thanks to these combined efforts, China managed to contain a terrifying blaze within weeks, averting a potentially much larger human disaster.
The conditions that set off the Chongqing tinderbox – weeks of extreme heat coupled with a severe drought – are the same ones fueling escalating wildfires in California and other parts of the West, most recently, near Mount Helena in Montana and Mount McKinney in California. But despite pressure from various stakeholders in industry and government, and among private citizens, drones have largely been sidelined – at least officially – from firefighting to date. The reason? Entrenched opposition from bureaucrats at the state and federal level, including from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who are resistant to technological innovation in firefighting and who insist on maintaining existing firefighting protocols, however ineffective.
It hasn’t helped, perhaps, that some private drone hobbyists, as well as members of the news media, insist on flying their drones near some of the latest raging wildfires, which can complicate the work of manned firefighting crews. Under current FAA regulations, the presence of other aircraft in airspace occupied by helicopters and even ground personnel can trigger an automatic suspension of the official firefighting effort. These intrusions have grown so frequent and annoying (as witnessed by the latest controversy at Mount Helena) that the FAA last year issued a blistering public statement calling drones and firefighting a “toxic mix,” apparently nixing the possibility that drones in some capacity – and under official government control – might one day be effectively incorporated rather than shunted aside.
Some American drone manufacturers and researchers are stepping into the void anyway. Drone Amplified, based in Omaha, Nebraska, manufactures ignition systems that attach to drones and that can be used to start controlled burns to establish firebreaks to stop advancing wildfires. Other companies are developing ways to collect real-time surveillance data using heat-resistant drones that can be sent into the heart of a raging blaze – much as China did at Chongqing. “We’re moving into an environment where every firefighter needs some drone really close by,” Drone Amplified’s CEO told the Daily Beast recently. Still, without a loosening of current regulatory restrictions, real progress on the American side will likely remain slow.
China already dominates the global drone market – with 75% of world drone sales deriving from its dazzling DJI drone. Beijing is also surging ahead with a new array of armed drones for conventional ground combat as well as intelligence-gathering space-based drones. And now Beijing is assuming the lead in drone-based firefighting, leaving many other nations, including the United States, further and further behind.