Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Calgary researcher looks to drones as potential wildfire fighters

By Joe McFarland, University of Calgary   

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Aug. 4, 2023, Calgary – A Calgary researcher is exploring drones as potential wildfire fighters.

Schuyler Hinman said in a press release that there are many factors that could impact the use of drones to fight wildfires.

From the size of the drone to the size of the lake or river it pulls water from, Hinman said it’s a complex problem with several variables for inputs and outputs.

“The inputs come from historical wildfire distributions, lake size and distributions, and fundamental principles of aircraft analysis and design,” he said. “The problem is very complicated, so right now we’ve simplified the outputs to examine the rate of water delivered and the estimated sized or relative cost of the system.”


While his efforts to this point have been analytical and theoretical, he is hoping to eventually put it into practice.

“As the wildfire issue became more and more relevant and disruptive to our quality of life, I couldn’t help but feel there was a role for large-scale drones to play.”

In 2020, Hinman sponsored a capstone project at the University of Calgary, with the idea to design a remotely piloted water bomber.

When he became an assistant professor at the university in 2021, he supervised two more capstone projects that led to a more-concentrated research effort.

Hinman said determining the overall effectiveness of drones in fighting wildfires is also a challenge.

“Smaller airplanes can cost substantially less than larger ones and can hit smaller bodies of water, which are more abundant — meaning shorter distances between loads,” he said in the press release. “However, they carry less water per trip, fly slower, and each drop is smaller and, therefore, potentially less effective, so we would need more drones.”

However, there are many other factors at play, including diverting fire fighting resources from their traditional roles to running the drones, which is still unproven.

Hinman said the B.C. Wildfire Service provided useful information and feedback during the first capstone project in 2020 and has since been willing to lend advice and encouragement.

He additionally is in conversations with members of the Alberta government has also provided him with information.

The drone-as-wildfire concept is still in its infancy, but it has grown into a worldwide effort.

Hinman said there likely won’t be drones fighting fires in the near future because research can be slow and incremental, while emergency situations are not, but the conversation should continue.

His team will continue looking at different opportunities and considering factors they haven’t already looked at — such as potential hazards in waterways the drones are pulling from — and validating what they have done to this point.

“This involves incorporating better aerodynamic and propulsion models, better predictions of aircraft mass and costs, and then improved situational simulations of the aircraft missions,” he said, adding the hope is his work and publications will help inform global efforts.

Hinman is currently looking for partners to support those efforts, as well as prototyping and testing a large amphibious fixed-wing, remotely piloted aircraft.

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