Commercial Drones PilotsUnmanned aircraft on wildfires – what have we learned?

October 29, 2021by helo-10

By Sara Billings and Shaughn Maxwell

Joe Milligan and William Bowman of the National Park Service Type 3 UAS Module.


Fire Season 2021 has forced Incident Management Teams to be creative in how they engage with fires. One of the ways teams have been successful is with the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), informally known as drones.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems are now used regularly for commercial, military, public and private applications. Experts suggest that while this technology is already impressive, it is still in its infancy. Some have described the state of UAS technology like being in the pager stage before cell phones. Many government agencies, even those regulating UAS, are struggling to keep up with the pace of development and spread of UAS use in the national airspace.

Previous reports have been published regarding the utility of UAS on wildfires. The intent of this post is to use the Schneider Springs Fire to frame current and potential UAS applications for wildland firefighting operations.

The Schneider Springs Fire

Operational Picture

The Schneider Springs Fire on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest started when a lightning storm blanketed the northern Cascade Mountain Range on the evening of August 3, 2021. During the next several days, the fire grew quickly in record hot and dry conditions. It was burning in heavy timber, standing dead trees, and very steep terrain that was difficult for ground resources to access.

“The UAS program will pay for itself by reducing the mental and physical wear and tear on our people.”


The Schneider Springs Fire is being managed under a full suppression strategy. However, due to the large number of fires in the region and nationally, as indicated above, there are a limited number of available firefighting resources. When PNW Team 2, a Type 1 Incident Management Team, took over the fire it was at only three percent containment after another IMT had been managing the fire for two weeks.

Type 3 UAS
Type 3 UAS with Ignis PSD.

How UAS Were Used on Schneider Springs Fire

Swing Shifts

Swing shifts allowed both day and night operations to benefit from the UAS. Swing shifts are often used as an opportunity to make the most of burning conditions. This approach was noted to synergize UAS opportunities by making the most of both day and night fire behavior.

Burning at Night

The Type 3 UAS was used extensively at night for Plastic Sphere Dispenser (PSD) burning operations.

Intel Gathering

The UAS were able to access portions of the fire that were inaccessible to other aircraft, as well as areas that had limited visibility due to smoke.

Providing Real-Time Data

The Type 1 UAS on night shift was used to fly Infrared (IR) over the entire fire.

The Type 1’s data interpreter was especially useful when the U.S. Forest Service’s National Infrared Operations (NIROPS) orders were Unable to Be Filled (UTF).

After the Type 3 was used for PSD burning operations, it was then able to get back up in the air to grid for spots in the burn area—providing IR immediately after burning or gridding deep in the green through thick smoke.

Both the Type 1 and Type 3 UAS were used concurrently during burning operations. The Type 3 burned and the Type 1 looked for spots. Once they located a spot fire, these UAS could “walk” suppression crew members on the ground to a spot’s lat/long—always being within a few feet of the spot fire’s location.

Type 1 UAS
Kelly Lewis, BLM Alaska Fire Service, with a Type 1 UAS.

What Are We Learning?


  • Better intel leads to better decisions. UAS can now improve how we manage risk by limiting exposure when scouting, patrolling, and firing.
  • UAS can identify spot fires. They also increase confidence that spots are being found—that you wouldn’t otherwise know about.
  • The UAS can support patrol operations with high effectiveness and less people, ultimately reducing exposure.
  • Smoke was not a limiting factor during UAS PSD or recon operations. Utilizing the UAS provided precision PSD operations, related to both timing and geography.
  • UAS can reduce the human exposure involved in helicopter PSD operations.
  • UAS can fly in smoky or foggy conditions not ideal for manned aircraft.
  • A UAS can cover more ground than a person on foot over various terrain conditions.
  • Night operations means no conflict with other aircraft.


  • More aircraft increases the coordination workload – including between manned and unmanned aircraft.
  • Air Operations and ground operations must coordinate on priorities for the entire incident.
  • With few UAS modules available, the existing ones are often required to drive back and forth trying to cover more than one fire incident.
  • The learning curve of not having previously worked with UAS.
  • Not knowing what products the UAS can provide, having no set standards.
  • For the Type 1 UAS it can take 24-48 hours to get it running on an incident—due to FAA approvals, Temporary Flight Restrictions, Landing and Recovery Zones (LRZs), Land Use Agreements, Mission Aviation Safety Plans, etc.
  • There will always be a need for manned aircraft. In terms of situational awareness, drones can’t see what a person looking out of an aircraft can see.
  • Current UAS availability is a limitation. There are not enough pilots, aircraft, or modules to meet the demand. Regional UAS Coordinators work with incidents and the Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACC) to set priorities for the modules and equipment. In doing so, they try their best to meet the needs of the fire and the region. There are a lot of pressure points: A high demand for the equipment; the pressure of “use it or lose it”; and the pressure to burn even if conditions aren’t right.
  • A UAS connected to a suppression module, such as a hotshot crew, means that you’re pulling one to three hotshots off the crew for UAS operations which may limit the crew’s capabilities.
  • UAS modules are not standardized. Currently, there is no established configuration. Equipment is often shared, including: big TVs, batteries, staffing (most modules are interagency), trailers vs trucks.
  • UAS have limited flight times. The Type 3 drone has anywhere from a 15-25 minute flight time, depending on payload (PSD operations vs IR).
  • UAS pilots need to have more than just UAS experience. They need to know what they’re seeing and how to talk on the radio. Having Firing Boss experience is very valuable.
  • Line of sight is still a limitation for the Type 3 UAS, which, due to terrain and vegetation, is about two miles.
  • Type 1 and Type 2 UAS are only available as Call When Needed (CWN) contracted aircraft.

UAS Possibilities for the Future?

  • A UAS—or multiple UAS—being assigned to every incident. Having dedicated federal UAS modules rather than taking from other modules.
  • Integrating UAS with incident Air Operations.
  • Development of UAS leadership positions.
  • Full time “eyes in the sky”—that could replace recon and patrol.
  • Eliminate the use of a light helicopter for PSD operations. Aerial ignition modules.
  • Better battery life for longer flight times.
  • Higher payloads and flight times for operations such as bucket drops.
  • Fireline explosives.
  • Search and Rescue on a fire.
  • More structure and standardization.

For More Information About How UAS can Benefit the Wildland Fire Community:

What Can Drones Do For Me?” Rapid Lessons Sharing.



This article was first published on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s blog.

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