But so far, firefighting reconnaissance drones aren't commonplace. Johnson said they've been used mainly "when fires get politically visible. Once a fire becomes catastrophic, they turn the drones loose to collect information and data."
That's because it's complicated to work drones into firefighting procedures, especially for managing aircraft and air space over fire areas.
Johnson explained, "When there's a wildfire, emergency airspace gets declared. This restricts all aircraft near the incident. Procedures for managing drones along with air tankers and other aircraft would have to be built into that protocol. I think in the future, if drones can be cost-effectively and safely applied, they'll become very common and useful in fighting wildfires. But that's a few years down the road."
Satellites and even the International Space Station also help fight wildfires. In particular, satellites operated by NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration can supply current data on wind direction and speed, as well as the dryness of surrounding areas. This can help predict where, and how fast, a fire will spread.
An agreement signed in June will allow NASA and the U.S. Forest Service to collaborate on raising wildfire awareness. This partnership will highlight connections between wildfires, forest and plant growth research, and materials science.
Zajkowski noted in Earth Imaging Journal: "This joint effort is enhanced by the personal interest of astronaut Joe Acaba, a flight engineer aboard the International Space Station. Acaba is an avid outdoorsman who has focused much of his career on the environment. He selected Smokey Bear, the forest service's mascot, as the zero-gravity indicator and talisman for his Soyuz flight to the orbiting laboratory in May.
"Acaba and his crewmates recorded high-resolution video and photographs of recent wildfires in Colorado and Utah."