As wildfires hit U.S. West, researchers work with drones to help forecast fires

Smoke from wildfires hangs low in the valleys of the Uinta Mountains in eastern Utah, U.S., June 21, 2021. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

MISSOULA, Mont., July 1 (Reuters) – In a grassy meadow outside Missoula, Montana, Jennifer Fowler eyes two drones high in the sky with weather instruments — part of a program to see how drones can help to fight and monitor wildfires.

Missoula is a major center for wildfire research and the program comes as the Federal Aviation Administration starts to loosen the reigns on autonomous flight regulation for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — a crucial step that takes the human out of the picture to make drone use cost effective. The FAA has mostly required drones to be within the pilot’s sight and the University of Montana team had to once hire a helicopter to follow the drone.

While some fire chiefs see drones as a nuisance that get in the way of tankers dropping fire retardants, some fire departments have tested drones with sensors to detect toxic gases or…