Scientists have been testing whether such planes — similar to the spy drones the U.S. military flies over Iraq and Afghanistan — can help track the direction and behavior of fast-moving flames without putting firefighters in harm's way.
After experimental flights of three unmanned aerial vehicles this summer, the U.S. Forest Service will launch the first real-life deployment next spring. The plan calls for planes to traverse a dozen Western states, mapping real forest fires 24 hours a day.
"Unmanned aircraft have the capability to do what we call the 3-D missions — the dull, dark and dangerous missions where you don't want to put a pilot on," said Vince Ambrosia, research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field in Silicon Valley, where the experiment was done.
Pilots now fly over hot spots and fire perimeters in aircraft and helicopters outfitted with special heat-sensing cameras that see through smoke and spot fires. The cameras relay images to ground personnel who plot how best to confront the blaze.
There is plenty of ground to cover — tens of thousands of fires burn millions of acres each year — but most planes can fly during only daylight hours. The Forest Service banned night flights after poor dusk visibility led to several crashes involving firefighting airtankers, which drop a retardant or water on wildfires.