The future role of drones in aerial firefighting

2 Nov, 2017Kishugu Aviation

Drones’ near-miss incidents with planes are on the increase across the globe. Just last month a drone struck a passenger plane in the skies over Jean Lesage International Airport in Canada, making this the first internationally reported collision between a drone and a commercial airplane.

The drone owner was flying illegally in a no-fly zone at about 450m above the airport airspace when the impact occurred. Fortunately, no one was injured, but it does raise a very important question: When – not if – this happens again, could the results be deadly?

In South Africa, drones pose a huge risk to the firefighting pilots and aircraft of Kishugu Aviation and Working on Fire. Firefighting operations cannot operate if there are any drones in the area. They create an extremely dangerous situation with potentially fatal consequences to the pilot and people on the ground.
The drone industry has truly taken off since these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), commonly known as drones, were first introduced as military tools less than two decades ago.

Drones are easily accessible, with prices as low as R1,000 for a standard drone. What many drone owners do not realise is that Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations state, that any RPA must be registered and may only be operated in terms of Part 101 of the South African Civil Aviation Regulations. This means that any person who flies a drone is subject to the same qualification requirements as a Private Pilot License (PPL).

“When a plane, flying at 120 knots, hits a drone, it is equivalent to a brick being thrown through your windshield. The damage it will cause to a pilot’s face and the aircraft will almost certainly lead to a crash.” This is one of the many challenges Kishugu Aviation spotter pilot, Erick Nel, faces while serving his community doing aerial firefighting.

However, if properly operated by pilots, drones could be incorporated as effective tools in firefighting operations. “With onboard cameras, drones could be used to pinpoint exactly where fire hotspots are in large plantation areas. This could save time and resources as the correct firefighting operations could be mobilised to the exact area and suppress fires quicker,” says Trevor Wilson, Kishugu’s Head of Aviation Safety and Security.

With ever-changing advances in technology in aviation, we need to learn to adapt. Simply labelling today’s drones as a danger to our pilots is one way of looking at it. However, if we approach the situation strategically, and work out how we can utilise these drones to our advantage in aerial firefighting, we might end up saving more lives and property than expected. Drones are part of the future, but we need to live together safely in the skies, for the greater good.