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Kari Greer/US Forest Service

Drones to the Rescue

From fighting fires to delivering medical supplies, drones are helping to save lives all over the world.

In early December, the hills surrounding one of the biggest U.S. cities were in flames. A massive wildfire was raging out of control in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. A major highway had to be shut down, schools in the area closed, and 46,000 residents were forced to evacuate. 

To fight the wildfire, the Los Angeles Fire Department brought in some extra help. For the first time, it launched two drones. Firefighters on the ground steered them over the smoke-filled hills. The drones were equipped with cameras to give firefighters a clear view of the fire’s path, allowing them to go directly where they were most needed. 

It wasn’t the first time drones were used during a fire. In recent years, the U.S. government has used these small, remote-controlled aircraft, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to help monitor wildfires in national parks. Plus, dozens of local fire departments now have their own UAVs.

“Drones provide firefighters with information that they previously didn’t have access to,” says Brad Koeckeritz. He is the director of the drones program for the Department of the Interior. That’s the division of the U.S. government that oversees the National Park Service.

But firefighters aren’t the only people using drones in emergency situations. These unpiloted vehicles are being used to help save lives worldwide.

In early December, the hills surrounding one of the biggest U.S. cities were in flames. A massive wildfire was raging out of control in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. A major highway had to be shut down. Schools in the area closed. And 46,000 residents were forced to evacuate.

To fight the wildfire, the Los Angeles Fire Department brought in some extra help. For the first time, it launched two drones. Firefighters on the ground steered them over the smoke-filled hills. The drones were equipped with cameras. They gave firefighters a clear view of the fire’s path. This allowed the firefighters to go directly where they were most needed.

It wasn’t the first time drones were used during a fire. Drones are also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In recent years, the U.S. government has used these small, remote-controlled aircraft to help monitor wildfires in national parks. Plus, dozens of local fire departments now have their own UAVs.

“Drones provide firefighters with information that they previously didn’t have access to,” says Brad Koeckeritz. He is the director of the drones program for the Department of the Interior. That’s the division of the U.S. government that oversees the National Park Service.

But firefighters aren’t the only people using drones in emergency situations. These unpiloted vehicles are being used to help save lives worldwide.

Search and Rescue

In January, lifeguards in New South Wales, Australia, used a rescue drone to save two teens from drowning. While surfing, the boys had gotten caught in rough waters with 9-foot waves. Luckily, lifeguards nearby were testing their new drone. They steered the UAV toward the swimmers. Within seconds, the drone hovered over the surfers and dropped a flotation device. The teens grabbed on and swam to shore, tired but unharmed.

Drones are being used in rescue missions in the U.S. too. Last year, park rangers began using UAVs to search for people who had become lost or stranded in Grand Canyon National Park. Rescuers had previously carried out searches in helicopters or on foot. But the drones can cover more ground in less time than traditional search methods. 

They can also zip through narrow spaces helicopters can’t fit into. Koeckeritz says these drones are especially useful for nighttime rescues because they have thermal-sensing cameras that can detect people in the dark by their body heat. 

“You can search all night long,” he says. “People pop right out at you, and you can tell their precise location.”

In January, lifeguards in New South Wales, Australia, used a rescue drone to save two teens from drowning. While surfing, the boys had gotten caught in rough waters with 9-foot waves. Luckily, lifeguards nearby were testing their new drone. They steered the UAV toward the swimmers. Within seconds, the drone hovered over the surfers. It dropped a flotation device. The teens grabbed on. They swam to shore. They were tired but unharmed.

Drones are being used in rescue missions in the U.S. too. Last year, park rangers began using UAVs to search for people who had become lost or stranded in Grand Canyon National Park. Rescuers had previously carried out searches in helicopters or on foot. But the drones can cover more ground in less time than traditional search methods. They can also zip through narrow spaces helicopters can’t fit into. Koeckeritz says these drones are especially useful for nighttime rescues because they have thermal-sensing cameras. These cameras can detect people in the dark by their body heat.

“You can search all night long,” he says. “People pop right out at you, and you can tell their precise location.” 

Stephen Lam/Reuters (Zipline Drone); Courtesy of Zipline (Ambulance)

The Sky’s the Limit

Across the world in Africa, UAVs are helping to get essential medical supplies to hospitals in remote areas. In Rwanda, a company called Zipline uses drones to deliver lifesaving medicine and blood.

Drones come in handy in countries that have rough terrain, like Rwanda. When hospitals in far-away villages run out of vital supplies, deliveries by car may take up to a day. But Zipline’s drones can fly over mountains and washed-out roads to reach their destination in a fraction of that time. 

Zipline’s drones are shaped like small airplanes with a 6-foot wingspan, enabling them to fly faster and farther than other drones. They are also autonomous. A staff member enters the drone’s destination into a tablet, and the aircraft flies there automatically. After making its delivery, the UAV circles back to its home base.

Since 2016, Zipline has made more than 2,000 deliveries in Rwanda. It’s planning to expand to the neighboring country of Tanzania later this year, with a fleet big enough to make 2,000 deliveries each day.

“Drones are going to play a big role in our lives now and for the future,” says Zipline spokesperson Justin Hamilton.  

Across the world in Africa, UAVs are helping to get essential medical supplies to hospitals in remote areas. In Rwanda, a company called Zipline uses drones to deliver lifesaving medicine and blood.

Drones come in handy in countries that have rough terrain, like Rwanda. When hospitals in far-away villages run out of vital supplies, deliveries by car may take up to a day. But Zipline’s drones can fly over mountains and washed-out roads to reach their destination in a fraction of that time.

Zipline’s drones are shaped like small airplanes. They have a 6-foot wingspan. This enables them to fly faster and farther than other drones. They are also autonomous. A staff member enters the drone’s destination into a tablet. The aircraft flies there automatically. After making its delivery, the UAV circles back to its home base.

Since 2016, Zipline has made more than 2,000 deliveries in Rwanda. It’s planning to expand to the neighboring country of Tanzania later this year. Its goal is to have a fleet big enough to make 2,000 deliveries each day.

“Drones are going to play a big role in our lives now and for the future,” says Zipline spokesperson Justin Hamilton.  

Miguel Sotomayor/Getty Images

1. How are drones changing the way firefighters work?

2. What is the main idea of the section “Search and Rescue”?

3. How are Zipline’s drones different from many other unmanned aerial vehicles?

4. What is the purpose of the sidebar “Safety in the Sky”? Why do you think the author included this information?

1. How are drones changing the way firefighters work?

2. What is the main idea of the section “Search and Rescue”?

3. How are Zipline’s drones different from many other unmanned aerial vehicles?

4. What is the purpose of the sidebar “Safety in the Sky”? Why do you think the author included this information?

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