Unmanned Heroes: Drones Transform Wildfire Battles

As darkness enveloped the landscape, Dusty Kavitz was closely watching a fire without flames. Based out of Buffalo, Kavitz serves the U.S. and has played an integral part in the battle against the notorious Dixie fire, one of the largest wildfires in the American annals. He was on a mission, seeking hotspots that could potentially reignite the fire with a slight wind shift. Interestingly, he wasn't present on the scene but was flying an unmanned aerial drone equipped with an infrared vision from afar.

“I walked someone into a fire that they couldn't see at night,” he disclosed one day in May, standing amidst an array of drones utilized by the Forest Service for wildland firefighting and resource management.

Kavitz, an unmanned aerial systems program manager with the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, symbolizes a significant shift towards unmanned aviation and sophisticated technology. Over the last decade, such technologies have increasingly permeated the agency, specifically at the Bighorn National Forest, a pioneer in deploying with five trained pilots and more on the way.

“Drones reduce risk, have ‘endless uses,' and save taxpayers money,” says Kavitz, emphasizing the risk reduction by taking manned aviation out of the air. In many projects, such as backburn lighting or remote stream evaluations, drones can be efficiently utilized, resulting in quicker, safer operations.

While a fully equipped American-made drone can cost up to $100,000, it's far less expensive than operating a manned aircraft. Kavitz, however, reminds us that drones are simply supplements, not replacements. “We will never be able to replace someone in the air. This is a tool to help reduce the risk and reduce costs,” he asserts.

Since 2016, drone technology has been receiving support from , D.C., with the Forest Service establishing full-time drone technician positions in 2020. Many wildland firefighting crews are trained to use drones, which have become an “instant request” upon arrival at a fire scene, just like a chainsaw.

In the Bighorn National Forest, drones have lit prescribed burns and facilitated natural resource management. Kavitz recollects using drones for quick assessments in remote locations, which would otherwise take hours for a human to reach.

Following the 2021 executive order by President Donald Trump, the Forest Service and other federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management have been procuring only American-made drones.

These drones, mainly the Alta-X and the Switchblade-Elite Tricopter, come with infrared and standard cameras, with the larger Alta-X even having a device for dropping fire-starting “dragon eggs”. These drones, which can fly 20 to 25 minutes per flight, have notably minimized the risk to personnel.

Training to become a drone pilot is extensive but much less than what is needed to fly a manned aircraft. After receiving a basic commercial license through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), candidates undergo several online classes followed by a two-week flight school to learn drone operation specifics.

Now, training drone pilots constitutes a significant part of Kavitz's job. He obtained his drone pilot license in 2017 and quickly became engrossed in drone systems.

“It's one of the fastest-growing aviation industries in the world, and I saw the writing on the wall and saw that it was a great opportunity to learn something new,” he shared.

Kavitz's dedication to drone technology and its future in the Forest Service remains unwavering. When someone jestingly refers to his drones as toys, he retorts, “You wanna see my toy? I wouldn't really call that a toy,” pointing towards a five-foot wingspan Alta-X drone. For Kavitz, it's much more than a plaything; it's a critical tool that offers unprecedented support in managing and fighting wildfires.

Drones have proven their worth in numerous scenarios. After the Crater Ridge fire in the northern part of the Bighorn National Forest in 2021, drones were used to assess concerns about sediment potentially impacting fish habitats in a nearby stream. What would have taken hours to hike and evaluate was accomplished in less time with a drone, confirming the water's cleanliness.

In another incident, following a windstorm near Powder River Pass, Kavitz dispatched a drone to examine the extent of the tree damage. Also, in the area around Grouse Mountain, drones have been crucial in executing prescribed burns to mitigate fire risks to the local watershed.

With special permissions, agency pilots can even operate in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. The robust application of drones points to an era where unmanned aviation works hand in hand with traditional manned operations, augmenting the capabilities and safety of the Forest Service's efforts.

Yet, it is important to remember that drones don't signify the end of manned aviation. As Kavitz reiterated, “There is a necessity and need for manned aviation on almost every fire.” Drones are powerful tools, but they supplement rather than replace human judgment, experience, and instinct.

As technology advances, the Forest Service continues to adapt, balancing the safety of personnel, the efficiency of operations, and budget constraints. Looking ahead, the integration of drones in the Forest Service's arsenal promises a future where fire management can be more predictive, adaptive, and responsive.

The sky isn't the limit; it's just the beginning.

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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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