As drought conditions ignite wildfires in California and Washington, researchers from Olin College are working on a firefighting drone project that has the potential to save lives and livelihoods. 

These researchers were granted an exemption by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones as they are often referred to as, to "conduct research on its own behalf and on behalf of other research groups." Their drone project is currently in its testing phase. 

To develop their specialized drones, Olin Robotics Prof. Andrew Bennett and a team of students worked with Scientific Systems, a company that specializes in developing products that "collaboratively accomplish missions in difficult environments." Their project was also partly funded by NASA. 

Specifically, the researchers are interested in creating drones that can be deployed into a wildfire and send back information in real time. Current wildfire mitigation strategies provide firefighters with information on where a fire is headed in a variety of ways, including from pilots and first-hand accounts. This information is then used to appropriately deploy fire bombers, personnel and other resources.

However, these methods are not as effective as they should be, as the relayed data can be 12-24 hours out of date and is often unreliable. Furthermore, communication is nearly impossible in wildfire environments where driving conditions can be treacherous and the Internet can be non-existent. In other words, firefighters are not adequately prepared to move and adjust their resources when a wildfire changes course. 

The Olin project, however, features several drones that can communicate to each other while flying in dangerous conditions and, most importantly, send back data immediately.

"We can fly over land, water and sea. We have equipped our drones with 1080 quality video cameras, as well as thermal imaging cameras," Bennett explained

The researchers note that their project aims to help fight fires using drones, rather than hindering the process, which has happened recently with consumer drones flying into the flight path of air tankers in California.

So far, Bennett and his team have been successful in designing and deploying drones in less than ideal flying conditions. Within the past several years, researchers have been working on SnotBot, which is a drone used to fly over, and sometimes in, water to collect information on whales to be used to learn more about the animals' stress levels. 

When completed, researchers expect their firefighter drones will fly in coordination with fire bombers.