FIREFIGHTERS used an unmanned drone to tackle a blaze involving explosive gas cylinders.

This picture — of the potentially explosive incident in Blackrod today — was captured using the “air imagery unit” which beams live images of fires to crews on the ground, giving them a clearer view of what they are facing.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service is understood to be the only fire service in the country to use a drone for tackling fires.

The unmanned unit was flown by watch manager Chris Rainford, who has a full pilot’s license to remotely fly the aircraft.

After a trial period, the drone could become an essential part of firefighting in Bolton and across Greater Manchester.

Paul Argyle, the fire service's director of emergency response, said: “We are carrying out a three-month trial of an air imagery unit, which could help crews tackle fires more effectively.

“The unit can capture and record high-definition and infra-red images and footage from the air to assist firefighters and officers dealing with a range of incidents where an aerial view would benefit them — such as moorland fires and incidents at large commercial sites.

“An officer has been fully trained to work the unit during daylight hours, seven days a week.

“Not only will the unit provide support during incidents, but it can also be used in training exercises and will help us to build up a library of images and footage that can be used for training, essentially improving firefighter and public safety.”

Use of the drone is part of the fire service's large-scale "Future Firefighter" project.

Two people are needed to operate it — the pilot and the ground crew.

During the trial, the unit will fly up to a maximum of 400ft and across a space of 500 metres, although it has the potential to go much further.

It will initially only fly in daylight hours but the fire service expects to provide 24-hour cover by the end of May.

A fire service spokesman said: “The Future Firefighting Project is looking at how we can use new technology and equipment to do things quicker, safer, with less people and with less impact on the environment as a result of changing risks and circumstances over recent years.”

Local businesses close to wasteland off Station Road were evacuated for an hour because of the dangers posed by an acetylene cylinder close to the blaze.

Firefighters were called just after 11am and were there until 2pm.

The cause of the fire is being investigated.