Drones being used to fight wildfires in West

High flying drones and the dangers associated with their unbridled use are all over the news these days. But the National Park Service is testing positive ways to put unmanned aircraft to use in its vast holdings in the West.

In late August, the NPS successfully used a drone for the first time to fight a wildfire. The 50-pound ScanEagle drone, which measures five feet long with a 10-foot wingspan, directed water-dropping helicopters to hot spots at a fire in Washington's Olympic National Park. 

The forest canopy is very dense in the area and smoke was heavy, making it difficult to detect hot spots and the fire's edge, a NPS spokesperson said. 

Until now, wildfire fighters were hesitant to employ drones, fearing they would be hazardous to other planes and helicopters used to fight a blaze. They are now learning how to integrate drones with other aerial equipment.

Boeing developed the ScanEagle in 2002 and lent it to the NPS at no cost for an operational test. It has previously been used by U.S. Marines in Iraq and as a fish finder by Pacific commercial fishermen.

The NPS will next test a drone to re-supply wildfire fighters in Idaho. Search and rescue missions in rugged, backcountry areas are another potential use.

Drones are not only cost effective fire suppression tools, they can fly on days when it's too hazardous for manned aircraft, the spokesman said.

Federal authorities generally contract with private companies to supply fire-fighting planes and helicopters. The cost can run to millions of dollars for long-burning wildfires.

Unmanned aircraft like the ScanEagle are cheap by comparison and pose less risk if something goes wrong.

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