It was a scene reminiscent of the orange haze that doused the ruins of Las Vegas in Blade Runner 2049: Menacing wildfires ripped through the mountainous forests surrounding the 31 million residents of Chongqing, threatening to torch the towering office buildings and high-rise apartments of southwest China’s largest city. The fast-moving fire, which was triggered by a record heatwave and drought, also presented a serious challenge for firefighters forced to work in rugged terrain to push the blaze away from residential areas.
But Chongqing, a city that more closely resembles a cyberpunk utopia that almost any other urban hub, fought back. Motorcyclists braved extreme heat to drive into the mountains and deliver materials and equipment to firefighters. Chinese state media shared stories of local residents chopping down trees to create fire barriers. Social media users shared dramatic images of firefighters and soldiers warding off flames, praising them as “heroes of the city.”
All of these efforts were supported by the world’s most advanced drone army, which swarmed the fire from all directions. Drones delivered food to firefighters and carried water pipes and supplies in payloads weighing up to 50 pounds. Surveillance drones flew into the thick of flames to monitor the fire’s trajectory and deliver crucial data to firefighters. Larger drones soaring miles above the fire ignited bars of silver iodide within clouds to trigger artificial rainfall, China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported. Long-range drones developed by a state-backed corporation focusing on military equipment were used for cloud-seeding above a nearby fire in Sichuan, leading to rainfall in just 60 minutes.
It was the perfect encapsulation of how the most populous country intends to fight natural disasters this century. China is the world leader in drone technology, boasting a gauntlet of manufacturers straddling military and civil development that have launched solar-powered “pseudo-satellite” drones and AI-powered drone “motherships.” It’s also home to the world’s largest drone maker, DJI. One would expect the rest of the world to import these strategies and follow suit with their drone armies for fighting climate disaster.
But while the U.S. military is keeping up with China in drone development, it’s far behind in its use of drones to tame extreme weather.
Some American manufacturers and researchers have started developing devices that collect real-time fire data and ignite controlled burns, which are a crucial fire prevention tool. The unmanned monitoring missions also allow firefighters to cut back on dangerous helicopter flights. But security concerns have forced some firefighting agencies to ground their fleets of Chinese-made DJI drones, and the U.S. is years away from making up the shortfall.
“There’s a real need for more drones to be used in good ways on wildfires,” said Carrick Detweiler, CEO of Drone Amplified, which manufactures ignition systems that attach to drones. “We’re moving into an environment where every firefighter needs some drone really close by.”
Drone Amplified’s IGNIS system embeds to drones and drops ping-pong-ball-sized chemical spheres to ignite backburns, which firefighters use to create defensive barriers and steer growing wildfires out of harm’s way. More than 150 IGNIS systems are currently in use, mostly by federal and state firefighting agencies, Detweiler told The Daily Beast.
The IGNIS systems were originally designed for DJI drones, he said. But DJI is neck-deep in hot water with U.S. regulators over concerns their drones could collect data and send it back to China. DJI drones have been grounded by several federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior—taking hundreds of drones used to fight fires out of U.S. skies. Last week, DJI was formally blacklisted by the Department of Defense after its drones were found being used in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
China’s leading drone makers, including DJI, have been funded by the country’s government and military, including the makers of the drones used to fight back Chongqing's wildfires. . That’s led to a bipartisan consensus to root DJI drones out of federal fleets—and to approach other Chinese-made drones with caution. “The security risk has pretty much been assessed,” Alexandra Seymour, a technology and national security expert at the Center for a New American Security, told The Daily Beast. “We need to make sure that we’re protecting our data and not creating a vulnerability.”
Drone Amplified has since adapted its IGNIS systems for use with U.S.-made drones. But they cost more and take longer to set up than DJI drones, which come out of the box with integrated thermal camera and visual camera systems. “You have to build out more of it yourself,” Detweilier said. To mitigate security risks, his company previously wrote software that prevented DJI drones from sending external communications.
“With additional safety barriers in place, for these really low-risk, non-national security missions, I still think there’s very little risk of using DJI drones,” he said.
But experts worry about any data making its way back to China, even from local-level firefighting bureaus. Seymour expressed doubt that consumer-developed software could completely close DJI’s external communications, warning it could always be breached by things like future software updates. “In trying to solve problems, we also want to make sure that we’re not creating new ones,” she said.
That puts an impetus on U.S. drone makers to catch up. Along with an uptick in government-led investment, firefighters also must be trained to operate drones, and regulations on unmanned aircraft systems prevent operators from flying drones over swaths of federal lands.
“I definitely see people interested in using drones,” Haiyang Chao, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Kansas, told The Daily Beast. He’s part of a team that has developed a lightweight drone that flies into prescribed fires and collects real-time data on wind speed and the fire’s growth.
The device, called KHawk, is designed to deliver exact geolocations in smoky, high-wind conditions. That data is then fed into a model that predicts “how the fire is going to spread in the next hour, or next few hours,” said Xiaolin Hu, a computer science professor at Georgia State University who is also working on the project. This makes it ideal for potential use where wilderness converges with urban areas, a critical frontier in firefighting.
Hu and Chao said they’ve observed plenty of openness among federal agencies to deploy more drones to respond to extreme weather. Along with being used for prescribed burns, the Bureau of Land Management uses drones to monitor wildfires on federal lands. And at least eight U.S. states are using aircraft or drones to create rainfall through cloud seeding. Though the strategy and its underlying technology remains controversial, more and more officials are interested in cloud seeding after a 2020 study proved its ability to induce snowfall.
Chao believes drones will slowly begin replacing manned aircraft in certain scenarios, such as collecting real-time data on wildfires and carrying water. But we’re a long way from autonomous technology being at the center of wildfire responses, he said.
“It’s kind of like autonomous driving. Nobody could predict car driving standards 20 years ago,” Chao said. “It may take a lot of time.”