Improving wildfire management and safety with unmanned aircraft systems

August 12, 2015

RENO - Annual federal spending to fight wildland fires averaged over $3.3 billion during the past five years, with a significant portion of those funds spent on aviation resources.

A new partnership, supported through Nevada's Knowledge Fund and led by the Desert Research Institute (DRI), is aiming to reduce that cost by developing and testing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, for wildfire applications.

Developed through DRI's Climate, Ecosystem and Fire Applications Program (CEFA), the project will bring together scientists, foresters, firefighters, and UAS industry manufacturers to research and evaluate UAS platforms, sensors and software that can be used in a variety of applications from wildfire smoke plume sampling to early warning and wildfire detection.

"We are extremely pleased and excited to propel this effort," said Adam Watts, an Assistant Research Professor at DRI who will serve as the lead on the project. "The enormous potential for UAS to serve as geospatial intelligence tools to improve the safety and effectiveness of fire management, and our ability to forecast fire and smoke movements, remains largely untapped."

DRI has been actively engaged in UAS sensor development and scientific applications for many years and was a partner in the state's FAA Test Site application in 2013, Watts added.

In addition to financial support from the Knowledge Fund the two-year project also will also leverage DRI's long-time connection with the NASA research and applications community.

Vincent Ambrosia, NASA's Applied Science Program, Associate Program Manager in Wildfires, explained that Nevada offers unique positioning as a FAA Test Site, as well as - unfortunately - wildfire threats to its forests and rangelands from their altered fire ecology.

"I know well the potential for UAS to be used for wildfire-related applications," said Ambrosia, "and the complex considerations for airspace safety that have led to the slow development of this important use.

"This new partnership benefits NASA because it is in line with several aspects of our Earth Sciences directorate, as well as our larger agency mission to develop technology, information, models and knowledge for transfer to the public and private sector to ultimately benefit the greater community."

Watts and his colleagues are also working with Drone America, one of Nevada's leading providers of UAS, and high tech equipment and services.

"Drone America has been developing unmanned systems in support of emergency-response and public safety for several years," said Mike Richards, president of Drone America. "This work will help advance our ability to serve the wildland fire community, and we are excited about the support for the UAS industry and the potential for expanding our markets that the project will provide."

Watts noted that the project team at DRI is also exploring collaborative work with Canadian UAS and fire-research companies as well as the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, to develop and expand wildfire UAS research outside the U.S.
For more information about UAS research at DRI please visit

About the Desert Research Institute: DRI, the nonprofit research campus of the Nevada System of Higher Education, strives to be the world leader in environmental sciences through the application of knowledge and technologies to improve people's lives throughout Nevada and the world.

Desert Research Institute

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