Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Starting this summer, solar-powered drones from New Mexico will soar above raging wildland blazes to offer a critical eye in the sky to firefighters battling flames below.
The drones, made by Albuquerque-based Silent Falcon UAS Technologies, are part of a fleet of unmanned aerial systems being deployed for the first time this year under a new U.S. Department of Interior contract for air support companies to dispatch commercial drones as needed to wildfires in all 50 U.S. states. One of those companies, Montana-based Bridger Aerospace, subcontracted Silent Falcon to deploy its solar-powered drones whenever the feds call for assistance.
Until now, government agencies permitted only small, helicopter-like drones, or hovercraft, to fly near fires. The Silent Falcon, however, is a winged plane built to fly long distances for hours on end, providing detailed, real-time imaging of everything in a broad swath of area below. It’s equipped with infrared cameras and other sensors that allow it to operate in adverse conditions, enabling it to see through smoke from wildfires and identify hot spots.
Federal authorization to use such unmanned systems marks a new milestone in the emerging commercial drone industry, said Silent Falcon CEO John Brown. Although the government still maintains tight restrictions on operations in civilian airspace, it’s slowly opening the skies to more exploratory uses while the Federal Aviation Administration works on the rules and regulations needed to safely allow drones to fly unencumbered over urban and rural areas.