Aug. 4, 2022

Schulich researcher looks to drones as potential wildfire-fighters

Multitude of factors need to be addressed, but Schuyler Hinman believes it’s worth investigating
Alberta Wildfire
A massive wildfire burns southeast of Edson in 2023. Alberta Wildfire

As firefighters continue to battle wildfires in Alberta and across North America, a Schulich School of Engineering researcher is hoping to determine if drones could play a bigger role in dousing the flames.

There are a multitude of factors that could impact the use of drones in such situations, but Dr. Schuyler Hinman, PhD, is hoping to get to the bottom of them all.

From the size of the drone to the size of the lake or river it pulls water from, it’s a complex problem with several variables for inputs and outputs, he says.

“The inputs come from historical wildfire distributions, lake size and distributions, and fundamental principles of aircraft analysis and design,” says Hinman, BSc (Eng)’13, PhD’17. “The problem is very complicated, so right now we've simplified the outputs to examine the rate of water delivered and the estimated sized or relative cost of the system."

While his efforts to this point have been analytical and theoretical, he is hoping to eventually put it all into practice.

A passion for aircraft design

Hinman first became interested in aircraft design during his undergraduate studies at UCalgary, joining the Schulich Aero Design Team, then pursuing his master’s degree under the co-supervision of Dr. Craig Johansen and Dr. John Kentfield, both PhDs.

When Kentfield passed away, Hinman changed the focus of his research to hypersonic aerodynamics, which he pursued all the way to his PhD, but his passion from aircraft didn’t go away.

“After my PhD, I worked as a consultant for several small aerospace companies and eventually took a job at a local aero company,” says the Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering assistant professor.

“As the wildfire issue became more and more relevant and disruptive to our quality of life, I couldn’t help but feel there was a role to play for large-scale drones to play.”

In 2020, Hinman sponsored a capstone project at Schulich, with the idea to design a remotely piloted water bomber.

When he became an assistant professor at UCalgary in 2021, he supervised two more capstone projects that led to a more-concentrated research effort involving some of those students.

Shows of support

Hinman says, in some ways, determining the overall effectiveness of drones in fighting wildfires is also a challenge.

“Smaller airplanes can cost substantially less than larger ones and can hit smaller bodies of water, which are more abundant — meaning shorter distances between loads,” he says. “However, they carry less water per trip, fly slower, and each drop is smaller and, therefore, potentially less effective, so we would need more drones.”

However, there are many other factors at play, including diverting firefighting resources from their traditional roles to running the drones, which is still unproven.

That doesn’t mean decision-makers aren’t interested in learning more though. Hinman says the B.C. Wildfire Service provided useful information and feedback during the first capstone project in 2020 and has since been willing to lend advice and encouragement.

He adds conversations with members of the Alberta government began in 2022 and it, too, has been encouraging while providing lots of information.

Flying to the future

Hinman says the drone-as-wildfire concept is still in its infancy, but it has quickly grown into a worldwide effort. There is even a new XPrize for Wildfire that includes a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System element, as well as a new working group under NASA called Advanced Capabilities for Emergency Response Operations (ACERO).

However, research can be slow and incremental, while emergency situations are not — indeed, 2023’s massive wildfires in B.C. and Alberta didn’t even exist a few months ago — so he says we likely won’t be seeing drones fighting fires in the near future.

Hinman says the conversation can keep going, though, so his team will continue looking at different opportunities like considering factors they haven’t already looked at — such as potential hazards in waterways the drones are pulling from — and validating what they have done to this point.

“This involves incorporating better aerodynamic and propulsion models, better predictions of aircraft mass and costs, and then improved situational simulations of the aircraft missions,” he says, adding the hope is his work and publications will help inform the global efforts.

Hinman is now looking for partners to support those efforts, as well as prototyping and testing a large amphibious fixed-wing, remotely piloted aircraft.

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