GPS Technology on the Front Line in Fighting Wildfires


J. David Grossman, Executive Director, GPS Innovation Alliance & Dr. Carrick Detweiler, Co-Founder & CEO, Drone Amplified

America’s first responders are battling a once-in-a-generation fight against wildfires. While communities in the American West have been battered by longer and dryer fire seasons in recent years, early data from 2021 is blunt on the challenging year that lies ahead.

According to Arizona’s forestry service, 311 fires have already burned this year compared with 127 at the same time in 2020, while more than 15,555 acres have been lost compared to last year’s 1,290. Continued droughts are making matters worse: while fires in 2020 burned a record 10.3 million acres, dry weather in California, Arizona and New Mexico are leading to dangerous conditions – and have set new records that demand immediate action.

In California’s Plumas National Forest, home to last year’s devastating North Complex Fire which burned more than 300,000 acres, residents are still working to rebuild their lives. Dave Daley, a fourth generation rancher whose family has raised cattle since his great grandfather moved to California during the gold rush, spoke directly in recent testimony to Congress: “Not only was my cow herd destroyed — the legacy of my family, my home, the entire ecosystem in the Plumas National Forest was devastated.”

Enter, New Technology

First responders are using a variety of tools in this fight— and a key among them is the role of technology. GPS, the same satellites that enable navigation on our mobile phones, is giving firefighters heightened situational awareness and enabling the use of drones that can track and fight fires from the air.

GPS has a long history of use in the public safety community, and today fire crews are using it to enable cutting edge technologies.

Increased visibility: GPS-guided drones with infrared capability can see through thick smoke clouds which have traditionally hindered manually operated helicopters. These drones can relay information on ground conditions before firefighters arrive, helping save lives.

Ability to anticipate: Fire crews that adopt GPS-guided drones are betting positioned to spot and react to fires through multi-sensor aerial imaging systems and thermal sensors. This has allowed responders to see likely threats on the perimeter of the burning area, and head off potentially disastrous fires before they spread.

Intel for prevention: In a particularly innovative use case, crews are using GPS and drones to prevent wildfires from the start with prescribed fire or to contain them with backburns. For instance, Drone Amplified’s IGNIS is a drone-based system, which allows firefighters to remotely ignite backburns and prescribed burns while staying out of life-threatening danger. The IGNIS technology is safer (removing firefighters from the fire line), less expensive ($1,800 per day versus $16,000 per day for a Type III helicopter), and more capable (able to operate at night, over dangerous areas, and at low altitudes) for igniting backfires. IGNIS relies on GPS for tracking, safety, and control. Fire officials note the cost of this tech is the equivalent of a few hours flight time, and more significantly the potential lives saved by keeping people out of hot zones.

Rebuilding what was lost: Use cases are emerging of forest regeneration: Drones on pre-programmed routes can help spread seeds to areas devastated by wildfires. Drones are adding value across the country, too. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Andres Liriano recently shared his candid thoughts on the utility of drones in South Florida: “It’s been completely a blessing for the fire department.”

A More Promising Future

As technology continues to evolve, these improvements can provide first responders with a sense of optimism.

As the trade group representing the GPS industry and a company that is at the forefront of using GPS-enabled technology, we are proud of the role that it plays in combating wildfires and are committed to continuing this work. Thankfully, GPS is getting stronger: Next month, the fifth GPS III satellite is expected to be launched into orbit. The addition of this next- generation satellite is one more critical step towards modernizing the entire 31-satellite GPS constellation with technology that brings three times greater accuracy for the benefit of first responders, and more than a billion GPS users worldwide.

America’s forests are burning, and America needs to think boldly on how we’ll meet this challenge. We are ready.