Tuesday, 3 August 2021

An Unmanned Firefighter: The Bayraktar TB2 Joins The Call

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Turkey is currently battling a series of deadly forest fires that are raging through the southern part of the country. With high temperatures and strong winds plaguing the region, the wildfires have so far proven difficult to put under control, with new fires quickly spreading to other provinces. The relentless fires also put several tourist areas along the Mediterranean Sea under threat, leaving behind a path of destruction as the flames slowly crawled closer to the coast. The wildfires have so far resulted in the death of eight people with hundreds more evacuated as houses go up in flames and precious lifestock is lost to smoke and heat. [1]

Fighting this natural disaster are more than Turkish 10.000 firefighters along with more than 40 aircraft and helicopters. [2] These have been joined by additional firefighters from Azerbaijan, Spain and Qatar. [3] Other countries such as Ukraine, Iran, Spain and Croatia and Russia have also offered their support to Turkey, allocating two An-32s (Ukraine), one Il-76 (Iran), two CL-215s (Spain), one CL-415 (Croatia) as well as five firefighting aircraft and three helicopters (Russia) to combat the flames. [4] [5] These operate in addition to several Russian helicopters and Be-200 firefighting aircraft that are already deployed in Turkey, although those operate on a contractual basis rather than as Russian aid in battling the infernos.
To help spot newly-started fires and to coordinate the force of firefighting assets, Turkey deploys a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that provide 24/7 overwatch over the affected areas. Although the UAVs are incapable of directly fighting the fires themselves, they have proven invaluable in stemming new wildfires by detecting their heat source, allowing authorities to quickly direct firefighting assets to their location. In this way new fires can be extinguished before they rapidly grow out of control.

Perhaps to no surprise, Bayraktar TB2s are at the forefront of the UAV battle against wildfires in Turkey. Along with several TAI Ankas and TAI Aksungurs, TB2s belonging to the General Directorate of Security (Police), the Turkish Naval Forces and Baykar Savunma (the designer and producer of the TB2) currently operate in support of the fire services and the Orman Genel Müdürlüğü OGM (General Directorate of Forestry). Although the continued usage of these high-tech unmanned assets might sound expensive, the opposite is true, with each flight hour costing the equivalent of just 925 USD dollars, a fraction of the costs of manned aircraft. [6]

Although countries like the United States have also been using UAVs to monitor wildfires in the past, the scale on which this is done in Turkey is unique in the world. This is both a testament to the pioneering role in unmanned developments Turkey has secured for itself in the past several years as well as to the functionality of Baykar's UAVs and their low acquisition price and operating costs. These were undoubtedly precisely the reasons why Turkey began using Bayraktar TB2s in its efforts to combat wildfires throughout the country starting in 2020, leading to the detection of 345 fires in the same year and 86 fires in the past two months alone. [7]

An advantage of using larger UAVs like the TB2 and TAI Anka is the altitude from which they operate (18.000 to 30.000 feet). As such, they are capable of surveying large areas with their forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras. If a fire is heading towards a residential area, its occupants can be warned in advance whereas ground-based teams monitoring the fire would have difficulty in judging the exact scope and the path of the fire. On the 1st of August, a TAI Aksungur detected the presence of three workers at a location right in the path of an incoming wildfire. Seemingly yet unaware of the impending danger, it was only because of the drone's observant eye that they could be warned before being entirely surrounded by flames. [8] 

Once a new fire has been located by UAVs and all information has been carefully evaluated, appropriate assets can then be directed to the area to combat the flames. In Turkey, this doesn't only include a large number of firefighting trucks, but also a fleet of dedicated firefighting aircraft. Although this once included some nine CL-215 and eleven Dromader PZL M18 'water bombers', these have all been retired over the past years, leaving a fleet of chartered Russian Be-200 amphibious firefighting aircraft and Mi-17 and Ka-32 helicopters to take over their valuable work.

With Turkish firefighters and their international colleagues engaged in a continuous battle with the seemingly unstoppable heat infernos, Turkish drones like the Bayraktar TB2 will be their eyes in the skies. Though less visibly active than the so-called waterbombers, their work is valuable and a testament to the wide applicability of large and affordable UAVs. With wildfires sure to remain a looming threat in the region, the Turkish government will be seriously evaluating the UAV's performance for consideration in future firefighting planning. This could not only see the purchase of new firefighting aircraft rather than leasing them, but also the acquisition of for instance TB2s by the relevant institutions.
Whether such acquisitions are really near at hand or not, the experience gained during these firefighting operations is certain only to become more relevant in the near future, especially as other countries might look to acquire such a capability. With a myriad of new UAV designs currently under way from Turkish companies like Baykar, even more advanced unmanned developments in the firefighting field may one day soon be conceived.