When a forest fire is starting, it's vitally important for firefighting crews to know exactly what it is that they're up against, so they can prepare most effectively. A new Spanish project is helping to make that happen, utilizing an autonomous intel-gathering drone.

Led by telecommunications corporation Telefónica, the collaborative project also involves researchers from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, drone-tech startup Divisek Systems, and drone-operations company Dronitec.

The system that these groups have created incorporates a network of communications towers, each one of which is equipped with both a thermal camera and a quadcopter drone that is stored within an integrated hangar. Using its camera, the tower is able to detect the thermal signature of forest fires that are beginning within a 15-km (9-mile) radius of itself.

When a fire is detected, the tower's computer determines the geographical location of the blaze, and then "awakens" the drone by sending it an email with those coordinates – that same email is also sent to a fire-fighting crew at a base station. The GPS-guided drone proceeds to autonomously fly out to the fire, using its own thermal and optical cameras to obtain and transmit visuals back to the firefighters.

Based on what they see, those people can then instruct the drone to fly over a specific area, in order to get a more complete picture of what the fire entails. Once its mission is complete, the aircraft heads back to the tower and lands in its hangar, where its battery is automatically recharged.

A single-tower version of the system has already been tested on a trial basis, in conjunction with the emergency services department of the Madrid Autonomous Region.

"It's a totally novel solution, based on robotics and automation, which won't remove anyone's job, but will instead offer a new tool for emergency services, providing added value and allowing them to operate more safely and to control the situation," the university researchers state.