firefighting drones wildfire management emergency

Can drones help with wildfire management? This college launched a new course on firefighting drones

The West Coast is in the midst of its worst wildfire season yet, but one Midwestern university is working toward coming up with a new solution that could help in future years: teaching a course focused entirely around firefighting drones.

Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus just launched a new, four-day UAS training course targeted at firefighters and HAZMAT response personnel. The first course is set for Oct. 5-8, to be held near Salina, Kansas.

A number of Kansas State University’s drone courses are designed for people who want to be experts in drones, while augmenting their skillsets. This one is — in a way — the opposite, targeting experts in firefighting and HAZMAT and educating them on how drones can help their work.

“Working with Salina area firefighters and our partners at Crisis City Training Center, we have created a course that offers a one-of-a-kind UAS training in which we can train students on fire, hazmat, and search and research scenarios,” said Kenton Dreiling, assistant UAS flight operations manager at K-State Polytechnic. “Students who take this course will understand how to best use an unmanned aircraft in a fire or hazmat situation with the overall mission to protect and save lives.”

The course will cover a number of different firefighting scenarios, beyond simply wildfire use cases. The course organizers said to expect to focus on:

  • search and rescue scenarios
  • night operations
  • structure fire reconnaissance

And, expect to study real-world scenarios, including:

  • A highway accident scenario: to identify hazardous materials and practice coordination between multiple aircraft and crew
  • A train derailment: to demonstrate how to locate primary and secondary hazards while providing overwatch

As far as wildfires go, drones have long been used in wildfire management for a number of purposes including surveillance and suppression, and locating hot spots. Some have suggested drones are better than helicopters because they’re easier to maneuver and can automatically gather real-time data to help first responders make decisions. They’re also much more cost-efficient (a number of firefighters use fairly straightforward, off-the-shelf drones that cost less than $2,000, like the DJI Phantom 4, the slightly more expensive DJI Inspire 2 with Zenmuse XT2 thermal camera, or even the accessible Mavic 2.

firefighting drones
Beyond wildfire management, drones have proven useful in HAZMAT response scenarios. Image courtesy of DJI.

K-State’s Polytechnic Campus has longer been a leader in drone training. Since 2016, the school has trained nearly 1,000 students on drones through noncredit courses. Of those, 35% came from backgrounds in the public safety sector, such as those who participated in a 2018 program focused on first responders.

Kansas State was the first university in the nation to receive a BVLOS waiver from the FAA in 2018, the first university approved for commercial drone flight training, and the first university to offer beyond visual line of sight training to students. The school also partners with the Kansas Department of Transportation, which is part of the FAA’s UAS Integrated Pilot Program.

Don’t fly drones over wildfires without permission

While Kansas State’s course will be useful for trained, first responders, don’t try to DIY your own emergency management program with a drone. It’s illegal (and dangerous) to fly an unauthorized drone near a wildfire. Besides inhibiting first response efforts, you could end up with a civil penalty of up to $20,000 and possibly end up in prison for 12 months.

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