Finding forest fires when they're big is relatively easy — you can see them from space. Or, y'know, just follow the burning smell. But if firefighters can identify a burn when it's just started, it's obviously far easier to nip in the bud. Sounds like a job for our old friend Mr Drone.
The technology NASA are going to use is nothing groundbreaking — a UAV with a 180cm wingspan, flying low and slow (like, 60km/h slow) can use an infrared camera to scan forests, spotting for any big fire in the making. It makes a ton of sense: firefighters already use spotter planes on aerial patrols to hunt for fires, but UAVs can do exactly the same job, but orders of magnitude cheaper (and for far longer).
At the moment, the Fish and Wildlife service is trialling the NASA drones to patrol forests after thunderstorms, but in theory, the price could fall low enough that a fleet of UAVs could stay on 24-hour patrol over high-risk areas, with computers monitoring the infrared video feed. Although that would undoubtedly make firefighters' lives easier, telling people that a fleet of constantly-watching, all-seing drones is just there for your own safety might not go down all that well. [Defence Talk]