Across the globe, destructive wildfires are becoming more common. Of the top 20 largest wildfires in California’s history, six occurred in 2020 alone. In the same year, Australia saw wildfires consume millions of acres of land and destroy billions of dollars of property. As our planet continues to warm due to the ongoing effects of climate change, there is more evidence that wildfires will become a bigger threat to even the UK over the coming years.
As such, it is crucial that firefighters around the globe, including here in the UK, develop new ways of combating this threat. Unfortunately, one of the most common occurrences of a natural disaster like a wildfire is that it destroys infrastructure. This wipes out the ability for responders to communicate and coordinate, hindering response and proving life-threatening for responders. Fortunately, technology is playing a key role in keeping our responders safe. But it can also take an additional role of helping take on some of the burden.
Deploying technology such as drones, when used in conjunction with cellular technology, can not only help detect wildfires but can also help in the fight for responders to assert control.
Detection and containment in the modern world
Historically, handling wildfires involved look-out towers, planes, helicopters and even relying on eyewitnesses to help draft up reports and plans. While this has been effective, wildfires rage more severely than before in our day and age, with most summer wildfire seasons averaging 40 to 80 days longer than 30 years ago. And with the increase of urban settlements in these areas, the time at which firefighters respond and manage the first fires is critical. With wildfires occurring at a higher rate, firefighters and first responders need access to modern technology and tools with the right infrastructure to support the detection, response time and management of these emergencies.
This is where drones are hugely valuable. They can be deployed from almost anywhere, enabling emergency services to get instant views and information of their surrounding area, no matter how remote it is. Likewise, they are cheaper and more sustainable than helicopters and other aircrafts, allowing them to run for long periods. The increase in mobility enabled by drones is also an essential aspect to consider. Long-range drones can be deployed to survey and collect data, for up to 10 hours – three times longer than a helicopter on a full tank. On top of all of this, because they are remote-controlled, they can get closer to dangerous situations, giving greater information to responders without putting lives at risk. All of which makes them a valuable tool in the firefighters’ arsenal, making emergency management and environmental monitoring a lot smarter.
Connecting drone with the operator
While the use of drones is a huge boost to how firefighters can respond to fires and other emergencies, it is vital that they can operate the drones and also receive the data in real-time. Using drones as a means of monitoring wildfires can help predict the fire trajectory, characteristics and behaviour. However, natural disasters often impact traditional networks, hindering this type of communication. Meanwhile, legacy technology such as radio limits the range of the drone, in turn limiting its effectiveness for the responders.
This is where 5G and LTE cellular networks can come into their own. Installing ruggedised routers into the drones enables them to continue to communicate across dedicated public networks, for example, the ESN, which is being rolled out in the UK. Previous line-of-sight trials using drones to assist emergency services have operated within the limitations of non-cellular communications technology and without the ability to use video. These can limit crucial drone trips1 to approximately 4.5 miles.
Using the 5G and LTE cellular network to track and monitor drones delivers what airborne regulatory agencies call beyond virtual line of site (BVLOS), which allow drones to fly to about 80 miles. BVLOS licences are being tested and implemented across the globe.
To even further shore up redundancy, ruggedised modems also come with dual sim cards enabling them to have two separate redundant networks to communicate over if the primary infrastructure fails. The data feed to drones provides responders with far greater security and reliability, facilitating response organisation.
Using technology to fight back against the inferno
While thinking about the practical benefits of this technology, it is vital to think of the future. There is no point in investing in equipment that won’t comply with future legislation or work on new infrastructure. For example, networks like the ESN will require high levels of security protocols, which edge routers will need to comply with. Similarly, as the UK develops its 5G infrastructure, and retires its 3G network, the future map of connectivity is still unclear. This makes it essential that any device can connect and switch between multiple networks to help reduce the chance of entering a dead zone.
It is also important to provide a platform where technology such as drones can utilise the latest advances to make firefighters’ jobs easier and allow them to focus on essential information and images for tackling the wildfire. Utilising the bandwidth and reliability of 5G and LTE cellular networks ensures that drones operate as expected using avoidance sensor information and location tracking while delivering the tactical data. The same cellular network can also be responsible for transmitting including high-quality video, images and communications that can be at high speed, which is essential to making quick decisions needed to fight back against wildfires.
By utilising the latest drone technology, combined with the flexible, secure and powerful cellular routers that make the most of 4G and 5G networks, the future of wildfire management is set to change. It will enable firefighters to share information between themselves and other emergency responders seamlessly, ensuring a smooth response to any emergency.
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