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Fire Agencies Consider Drone Adoption

Cynthia Hotujec-Kantner / AP / File
 

Cynthia Hotujec-Kantner / AP / File

Unmanned drones could eventually assist in fighting wild fires in California, but probably not anytime soon.

Both Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service are exploring how the devices could provide a safer, less-costly option than airplanes to survey fires from the air.

The agencies have occasionally experimented with the technology and are both working on formal policies, but with no timeline for adoption.

"As a government agency, it makes it not quite as easy as just going down to the hobby shop and purchasing a drone and flying it in your backyard," says Jennifer Jones of the Forest Service. "It’s a lot more complicated than that."

The Forest Service first used NASA drones to survey California wild fires in 2007.
Jones says her agency also sees a wide range of possibilities for drones to help better monitor the hundreds of millions of acres of land it oversees.

"We could potentially map and monitor vegetation or the general conditions of forest, sample air quality at various altitudes," says Jones, "detecting damage caused by forest insects and diseases, monitoring habitat of fish and wildlife populations."

While the U.S. military has flown unmanned machines for years, domestic agencies have been slow to adopt them, due to concerns about privacy and air space, as well as a lack of drone-specific regulations.

Forest Service regulations require pilots of the remote-controlled aircraft to be licensed as though they are in the plane.