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Black Creek company uses drone technology to assist with B.C. wildfires

Drones used thermal imagery to find buried hot spots
A drone operator prepares for flight on a B.C. mountaintop. Photo supplied.

This past summer, a Black Creek company used cutting-edge technology to help battle the B.C. wildfires.

From July to September, Stinson Aerial Services provided remotely piloted aircraft system (drones) flight crews to B.C. Wildfire to conduct thermal scanning throughout British Columbia.

As one of only a handful of Canadian companies experienced in such techniques, particularly surrounding firefighting, Stinson Aerial Service was contracted out by BC Wildfire to supply the drone expertise.

“This was the first year that we were deployed,” said Rhys Abel, a professional drone pilot and a business systems analyst with Stinson. “I was a GIS (geographic information system) mapper on the team. We worked all across the province - from Vancouver Island, the Interior, the northwest area - all across B.C.”

The drones were used to find buried hot spots - fires that had yet to ignite above ground, or are invisible to the naked eye. The drones would fly anywhere from 50-100 metres above the ground and use thermal imagery.

The actual deployment of the drones is done at night, for numerous reasons. The ground is cool, there is less manned air traffic, and the drone operators can distinguish a hot spot from a rock.

The crew works throughout the night and produces a map product for the morning, then repeats that process every day.

Abel said the opportunity to help battle the devastating fires was gratifying.

“I’ve been working on developing this technology in an impactful way, to try to help people,” he said. “Through that, we are now able to help the wildfire crews, mitigating their risk. It’s all about increasing safety.

“It‘s super rewarding to be a day-to-day entrepreneur and also be able to be on the frontlines of firefighting. It’s so rewarding to design processes that you know will ultimately save someone’s home, or even lives.”

Abel said this summer’s experience should prove beneficial not only for future B.C. wildfire seasons, but internationally, as well.

“It could be a year-round process. We are looking to help out different countries Australia, or the U.S., for example. How can we help them to mitigate their fires? I think we can all agree that this past summer was one of the hottest on record, and unfortunately, that will probably continue, due to the impact of climate change.

“The key is figuring out how we can help people across the world and across the country save lives and save properties.”

Stinson Aerial Services was incorporated in 2012, and has been focusing on drone technology since 2018.

Abel, who is only 20 years old himself, said his team comprised many other youths from the area.

He was assisted in that regard by Dakota Johnson, who is in the Coastal Forestry Technology program at North Island College. Johnson was also involved in designing the mapping process for the contract.

“We also had Indigenous youth, thanks to Dakota,” said Abel. “It was super cool how we were able to get the youth involved in all this - helping people save their homes, save their properties, and have an impact.

“Myself, I got involved at a pretty young age, and it’s cool to see how we can create jobs and experience in an evolving sector, for youth. Really, I hope to empower other youth in the community to work toward developing their own technological innovations.”

Black Press has reached out to BC Wildfire Service for additional information.

ALSO: B.C.’s 2021 wildfire season third biggest in area burned
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A Stinson Aerial Services drone lifts off from its landing pad heading out to detect buried hot spots for BC Wildfires. Photo supplied

Terry Farrell

About the Author: Terry Farrell

Terry returned to Black Press in 2014, after seven years at a daily publication in Alberta. He brings 14 years of editorial experience to Comox Valley Record...
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