Drone experts work to help fight and forecast fires

In a grassy meadow outside Missoula, Montana, drones fly high in the sky on an important mission - they’re part of a program to help fight and forecast wildfires.

Jennifer Fowler of the University of Montana is hoping to help firefighters respond to disaster.

JENNIFER FOWLER: "They (firefighters) would really like to have better forecasts just to really know 'when can we attack these lines a little bit more efficiently' and 'where can we move resources?' They just don't know all the time what's going to happen.”

Fowler’s drones carry instruments to measure temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction. The data can be fed back in real-time.

To make it all work - battery power and recharging technology are key. So other researchers are working with startup WiBotic - it has autonomous charging pads and a system that can monitor the battery health remotely.

WiBotic CEO and co-founder Ben Waters said his technology could potentially help drones fly in more remote places.

BEN WATERS: “One of the reasons why you can't fly drones is because you can't readily have access there. So we are really excited about enabling the future where drones can be stationed in remote areas."

While some fire departments have tested drones with sensors to detect toxic gases or infrared cameras to measure the fire's temperature, other fire chiefs see drones as a nuisance that get in the way of tankers dropping fire retardants.

Another hurdle -- the FAA limits most drones to 400 feet.

JENNIFER FOWLER: "400 feet is great but it's not giving us the information that we really need long-term for some of our weather models and to really... Even looking at wind shear, if we're trying to help some of the aircraft as they're flying through fire, they aren't flying at 400 feet. They're flying higher."

For the next test in October, Fowler said her team is taking the drones to Oregon to test them out on a controlled burn, a fire set intentionally to help researchers learn how to limit wildfires in the future.