Can Bay Area startup’s firefighting drones save us from catastrophe?

With flame-ravaged Bay Area communities still mired in a tough recovery after California’s worst fire season destroyed more than 1,000 Bay Area homes, a Silicon Valley startup says its artificially intelligent firefighting drones could help stop future catastrophes.

If drones from Rain Industries had been in position around the Bay Area during this August’s lightning storms, the aircraft could have contained 72% of the fires within 10 minutes of ignition, the Palo Alto firm’s co-founder and CEO Maxwell Brodie said. “This is a transformative technology,” Brodie said. “If it is us or someone else that does this, it doesn’t really matter. This will happen.”

After starting out with a smaller, six-rotor prototype drone that successfully doused small fires by dropping balls full of retardant, Rain is now testing autonomous aircraft resembling small helicopters that it says can fly preemptively during potentially hazardous wildfire conditions and use their infrared sensors to locate and combat flames when they first erupt. Alternatively, the drones could take to the air as soon as flames are detected by the hundreds of fire-spotting cameras already positioned throughout California, existing lightning-strike-detection antennas or weather satellites.

“We are going after and solving the rapid response piece,” Brodie said.

A drone resembling a small helicopter used as Palo Alto startup Rain Industries’ “Mark 2” firefighting aircraft (courtesy of Rain Industries) 

Rain’s technology has already drawn interest from area fire officials, including Dixon fire chief Todd McNeal, who had used drones as an “eye in the sky” when he was fire chief in Twain Harte in the Sierra Foothills east of Stockton.

“By no means will they or I ever tell somebody that this will replace firefighters on the ground,” McNeal said. “We’re not going to full autonomy and sit back and let the machines do the work. The intent is to speed up the detection, to speed up the initial response, and deliver some sort of suppression agent to hold it, to slow it down.”

Fires in the western U.S. are regularly setting new records for size and damage, creating an urgent need for new tactics and technologies, McNeal said. Rain’s drones can help “fill in the coverage map” in areas further from fire departments and firefighting aircraft, he said.

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