Wildfires can be hard to reach. So this Okotoks company started using drones to help fight them

Well after sundown, when the night slides into early morning hours, Chris Healy and his team will send out a drone that will soar far from sight.

They fly over areas less accessible to humans and map out large swaths of land where wildfires may be burning.

By morning, the data is compressed and processed — any “hotspots” the drones detect are plotted on a map that will take the fire ground crew to their exact location.

“We’re flying all night long. It’s a very time-bound, very compressed flight window to collect and deliver those insights,” Healy said.

He’s the head of IN-FLIGHT Data Group, an Okotoks-based company using drones to help tackle wildfires.

Night is best, he says, to get an infrared reading, since it’s cooler out and the sun isn’t heating the ground.

Alberta is on high alert, as wildfires continue to burn near popular vacation spots in the interior of B.C. The province has issued fire bans and fire restrictions all over southern Alberta.

‘Sight beyond sight’

He says while the drones save time for fire crews, it also increases safety.

“We are able to fly into conditions where man aviation assets can’t operate, whether that’s in dense smoke at night or for long periods of time,” Healy said.

There’s another special aspect about how this company can operate.

While drones are typically banned from flying beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot, the company was issued a permit from Transport Canada that allows it to be an exception.

The permits are generally only issued if an operator can prove it has a thorough understanding of Canadian airspace regulations and detailed safety protocols, according to the company, and the permits are fairly rare.

With hot and dry summers becoming more common, the Okotoks-based company is using its drone technology to help fight wildfires. (IN-FLIGHT Data)

“We have sight beyond sight. We’re able to know where our aircraft is at all times when we’re in the area that’s designated by public safety,” Healy said.

“We’re also able to understand where all the other assets are in the air, and pilot our aircrafts as such that we maintain a safe distance from all the other pilots that might be out there.”

Healy says the fleet is used in other operations too.

That includes search and rescue missions, and missions for industries like agriculture, or oil and gas where it can conduct long-distance inspections and surveillance into hard-to-access, or hard-to-inspect areas. 

The drones are frequently in flight too, he says — when the company’s pilots aren’t flying for a mission, they’re flying for training.

The drones aren’t cheap — they can cost roughly between hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, he said.

But Healy thinks in the future these kinds of tasks, like hot spotting or patrols, will become increasingly automated.

“The safety and the cost aspect of using drones does outweigh manned aviation. So I definitely see the provinces and Canada going in that direction,” he said.

At the ready

While the drones aren’t being used for the B.C. wildfires right now, the company does service that area if it’s requested.

Healy said he’s seen a sharp upwards crest in terms of requests for wildfire fighting in general, though this year Alberta has so far had less fires burning.

However, he says he’s never seen as much smoke blowing into the Calgary , like it did last year. The company is preparing for increased requests in the future.

“The season’s not over,” he said. “So, we are on standby.”

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