Fighting Wildfires with Drones: On the Front Lines with Bridger Aerospace

Bridger Aerospace is on the front lines of fighting wildfires with drones.  We got the inside look at their operations.

By DRONELIFE Staff Writer Jim Magill

As wildfires continue to ravage vast swaths of land across the western United States unmanned aerial vehicle operators are stepping up to provide critical services, acting as eyes in the skies in support of firefighting teams on the ground.

Flying two hybrid quadrotor (HQ) aircraft manufactured by L3Harris Technologies, Belgrade, Montana-based Bridger Aerospace, has flown some 250 hours in about a dozen firefighting missions across several western states, Weston Irr, Bridger’s director of unmanned aircraft systems, said in an interview.

The Right Tools for Fighting Wildfires with Drones

The fixed-wing 90-pound drones’ design and technological features equip them to be deployed to battle wildfires in remote areas. The gasoline-powered aircraft are capable of taking off vertically, like rotary-powered drones. They can remain aloft for 12 hours, although on a typical mission, they are deployed for a six- to eight-hour flight. They’re outfitted with dual-camera systems, for both day and night operations.

With a wing span of 14 feet, the HQ-90 aircraft can be disassembled for easy transport to a fire scene in the bed of a pickup truck and because of their vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability, they don’t need a runway and can take off from virtually any open area within close proximity of the fire.

“The use of runway or landing strip is not a typical luxury that everyone gets,” in wildfire situations, Irr said. “You can launch using a small meadow or a little clearing in the trees.”

Bridger has been approved under a special government interest waiver (SGI) to fly its aircraft beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) in wildfire situations, which has given the company the ability to deal with some of the massive wildfires sweeping the West.

For example, the Bridger team was recently deployed to battle the massive Mullen fire, east of Laramie Wyoming, which burned across more than 176,000 acres of Wyoming and Colorado. “It spanned an area about 30 miles wide and 40 miles long. Our ability to operate BVLOS allowed us to pretty much cover the entire fire from one launch location,” Irr said.

The HQ-90 drones’ camera systems allow the aircraft to operate in low-visibility situations, such as in a smoke-filled sky or at night, when manned aircraft are unable

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