How Firefighting Drones Might Outsmart Wildfires in Portugal

In an effort to combat the increasing threat of wildfires, has brought to the fore an innovative approach – a firefighting drone capable of dousing flames from above. The pioneering technology was put through a trial run in May, extinguishing a test fire within minutes.

“We're trying to bring robotics technology to management. Because every opportunity we have to keep people from dying during firefighting, we need to try,” said Carlos Viegas, a mechanical engineer heading the project at the University of Coimbra's Field Tech Lab.

The Sap drone, as it is called, meaning “ported nozzle system” in Portuguese, swoops into perilous areas that would be otherwise inaccessible for firefighters.

While Portugal and the world watch this cutting-edge development with bated breath, wildfires rage on. and Chile have been particularly affected this year. Viegas stresses, “The risk of ignition and spread is there.”

How Portuguese Firefighting Drones Might Outsmart Wildfires

There is a palpable sense of urgency in Portugal, which experienced devastating wildfires in 2017, claiming 117 lives and leaving an indelible mark on the landscape. Given the ongoing drought, record heatwaves, and an emerging El Niño, conditions are ripe for another catastrophic wildfire season. Viegas admits, “I think 2017 was an eye-opener for us.”

But tackling these wildfires isn't solely about new technology. It's also about grappling with the rapid pace of climate change and development. A 2018 report flagged that wildfire risk in Portugal, one of the most affected in , will continue to rise. Forest areas have doubled due to the plantation of eucalyptus since 1995, fueling these blazes.

In light of this, Maria Araújo, an engineer with Jacinto, the fire truck company that partnered with the University of Coimbra on the project, emphasizes, “We really want to eliminate the risk for .” Developing this firefighting drone was not without its challenges, but the potential for its use in early or late-stage fires could be revolutionary.

Rafael Batista of Sleeklab, the development lab that designed the drone, says, “For [major fires], the drone won't be doing anything because the fire is so out of proportion already that this won't be useful.” Nonetheless, the drone could be instrumental in suppressing fires at their onset.

How Portuguese Firefighting Drones Might Outsmart Wildfires

Experts caution that the firefighting drone is still in its early stages and has only been used on a test fire. Erik Litzenberg, senior wildfire policy advisor at the International Association of Fire Chiefs, reportedly believes the drone's potential might be limited due to its requirement for a nearby water source, and the amount of water needed to extinguish a large-scale fire.

Regardless of the skepticism, the need for new technologies in firefighting is palpable, given the escalating risk of wildfires worldwide. As climate change worsens, Portugal and the rest of the world face the ominous prospect of increasingly intense wildfires.

The Sap drone could be one vital tool in the arsenal to prevent such disasters from spiraling out of control. As the world grapples with the aftermath and anticipation of wildfires, the Sap drone signifies a crucial step toward innovating firefighting techniques. However, it's just a small piece of a complicated puzzle.

Wildfires aren't simply a byproduct of extreme weather conditions. They are equally an issue of land management and human-induced climate change. Much of Portugal's native forests have been replaced by eucalyptus and pine plantations, both of which exacerbate fire risks. Indeed, the area of eucalyptus in central Portugal doubled between 1995 and 2018.

Besides creating advanced firefighting methods, experts emphasize that addressing these root causes is key. “We have all the ingredients to have wildfires that can get out of control,” warns Isabel Trigo, a senior remote sensing researcher with the Portuguese Sea and Atmosphere Institute.

The potential of the Sap drone is still being explored. The team is currently looking to secure funds to transform their prototype into a market-ready product. The next step involves fine-tuning the drone for widespread use, which includes improving the user interface and flight duration.

How Portuguese Firefighting Drones Might Outsmart Wildfires

Despite these challenges, the Sap drone offers a promising glimpse into the future of firefighting. While it might not replace traditional aerial firefighting equipment, the drone could play a crucial role in quickly suppressing small fires before they balloon into unmanageable blazes.

“The future of firefighting,” as Viegas had optimistically called the drone, will undoubtedly involve an interplay of various technologies. and several other US states are already utilizing drones equipped with sensors and cameras to detect and track fires, allowing firefighters to deploy resources effectively.

The Sap firefighting drone is an exciting development in a broader strategy to combat wildfires. It's a testament to how technological advancement can be harnessed to tackle one of the most pressing issues of our times – wildfires.

As we brace for increasingly volatile wildfire seasons, it's clear that every innovative tool at our disposal will be essential in safeguarding both our environment and the people who risk their lives to protect it.

You can read more stories about how drones are used for good on DroneXL.

Photos courtesy of April Reese / ADAI / University of Coimbra.

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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and, 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 @ or @hayekesteloo.

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