Using drones and artificial intelligence to map and analyze fires

Above L. to R. — Dale Hamilton, Nick Hamilton, Casey Lewis, Aleesha Chavez — all of Northwest Nazarene University.

A group from Northwest Nazarene University is working on systems using artificial intelligence to analyze data collected by drones to map wildfires and determine fire effects.

We filmed this interview in a room where exhibits were being installed at the Fire Continuum Conference in Missoula, Montana the week of May 21, 2018.

DOI issuing drone CWN contracts and purchasing dozens

The Department of the Interior is continuing their very aggressive movement into the world of drones. They have held training sessions to get scores of employees certified to operate the devices and are advertising and awarding contracts for call when needed (CWN) drone vendors. The Department has recently published at least four solicitations, awards, or special notices about drones and unmanned aerial systems.

contracts drones fires wildfires contracts drones fires wildfires

One of them was a justification to skip the process of accepting bids from multiple vendors and so they could

3DR Solo Drone
3DR Solo Drone

issue a sole source contract to buy 56 of the 3DR Solo drones (Quadcopters) and associated equipment. We have seen a version of the aircraft with a gimbal but without a camera listed for around $2,000.

Birdseyeview Aerobotics received a contract to supply “Fixed Wing Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)” potentially worth over $620,000.

The epidemic of CWN firefighting aircraft is spreading beyond large air tankers and single engine air tankers. The DOI has issued at least four CWN contracts for contractor-operated and maintained small drones to be used on fires.

At a May 11 briefing for Senators and Representatives about the upcoming “fire year”, Secretary 0f Agriculture Sonny Purdue threw a verbal jab at Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, saying Secretary Zinke frequently “brags” about how the DOI is moving rapidly into the use of drones.

Below is information from the Department of the Interior dated May 15, 2018:


BOISE, Idaho – As part of a broader strategy to aggressively combat wildfires, the U.S. Department of the Interior has awarded a Call When Needed contract to four U.S. companies for small-unmanned aircraft systems services. The contract, which is Interior’s first of its kind, will allow the agency to obtain fully contractor-operated and maintained small drones that are ready when needed to support wildland fire operations, search and rescue, emergency management and other resource missions in the Contiguous 48 States and Alaska.

“This contract reinforces our commitment to partnering with industry to provide our employees with the latest technology in carrying out their responsibilities as stewards of our nation’s public lands while also ensuring their safety is paramount,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “This capability is key to implementing our new and aggressive approach to combatting the threat of large wildfires that I outlined in my Wildland Fire Directive last September.”

The award follows a lengthy process to develop mission performance requirements and select a range of experienced commercial providers to meet this need. Companies receiving awards included, Bridger Aerospace of Boseman, Montana, Insitu of Bingen, Washington, Pathways2Solutions of Nashville, Tennessee and Precision Integrated of Newberg, Oregon.

“As the recognized leader in the application of unmanned aircraft technology in natural resources, wildland fire, and land management applications, we look forward to supporting our Interior bureaus’ needs and those of our interagency partners with this first-ever contracted small-unmanned aircraft systems  resource,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Safety, Resource Protection, and Emergency Services Harry Humbert. “This strategic contract capability compliments the division and tactical level capabilities of our fleet vertical take-off and landing fixed wing and quadcopter small-unmanned aircraft systems, providing critical enhancements to firefighter safety and effectiveness.”

The contract consists of one base year with four option years. The total potential contract value is $17 million. Aircraft selected under the contract will be able to operate day or night, without a runway in sustained winds up to 25 knots and at altitudes consistent with typical western wildfire environments.

“These contracted small-unmanned aircraft systems will supplement the manned firefighting fleet by providing the capability to operate during dense smoke/inversion situations which often occur and have heretofore hampered the aggressive prosecution of destructive wildfires,” said Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. “Infrared/thermal camera technology onboard these small-unmanned aircraft systems can penetrate smoke and gather/disseminate information to deliver critical situational awareness for incident commander. These sensors also provide us with the first real opportunity to collect, analyze, and archive relevant wildfire suppression and retardant outcome data since aerial suppression began in 1930.”

“Interior has a long history of collaborating and partnering with industry to provide our field and fire personnel with safe, effective, and cost-efficient commercial air services to meet unique mission needs,” said Interior’s Office of Aviation Services Director, Mark Bathrick. “Historically, nearly 70 percent of our manned aircraft missions are supported through commercial air services contracts. The capabilities of these contractor operated small-unmanned aircraft systems will provide our scientists, land managers, emergency managers, and firefighters with additional capacity to obtain enhanced sensing, increase employee and public safety, realize cost savings, and service Interior’s diverse and dynamic mission requirements more responsively.  This new capability fulfills another important element in Interior’s Unmanned Aerial Services Integration Strategy.”

Like their Interior small-unmanned aircraft systems fleet counterparts, these aircraft will operate from within the Temporary Flight Restrictions established over most large wildfires. This will enable them to take advantage of Interior’s unique authorities from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate beyond visual line of sight—a critical capability in the smoky wildfire environment. Their longer endurance will provide incident commanders with near real-time access to critical fire boundary, behavior, and hotspot location, enabling them to make faster, more informed decisions than in the past. In conjunction with the tactical and division level fleet small-unmanned aircraft systems Interior has already integrated into the wildland fire environment, these aircraft will enhance firefighter safety through the identification of emerging changes in fire behavior and escape routes.

Interior is currently working to bring small unmanned aerial systems to the hazardous aerial ignition mission, which over the last 13 years has resulted in the loss of two contracted helicopters and five lives. Future initiatives include the continued development of optionally-piloted helicopter technology developed by the Department of Defense to enable safe and effective use suppression of fires during the approximately 16 hours each day when night and reduced visibility currently prevent aerial support. Historically, 20 percent of all wildfires are discovered outside periods of traditional aviation support. Interior believes tripling the amount of active aviation support time on wildfires will have game changing benefits in reducing the time, area, and cost to contain wildfires.

Oregon has 27 exclusive use aircraft on firefighting contracts this year

The Oregon Department of Forestry will have a greater emphasis this year on infrared mapping and the use of drones, and, has the 747 on a CWN contract.

Above: Whitewater Fire, 6 miles east of Idanha, Oregon. August 19, 2017. Inciweb photo.

With smoke from the 2017 wildfires still fresh in the minds of Oregonians, the Oregon Department of Forestry is already gearing up for this summer’s wildfires.

The agency’s Interim Fire Operations Manager Blake Ellis said a lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes each winter and spring. “We work to ensure firefighters are equipped and ready to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires all year, with a special emphasis on being staffed and ready for the drier months,” said Ellis. ” We essentially double our firefighting forces going into the summer, when wildfire risk is highest.”

Readiness activities include:

  • Contracts and agreements for firefighting equipment, aircraft and other resources have been signed
  • A new policy governing use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles (also known as drones or UAVs) has been adopted. These systems will support fire protection and natural resource management.
  • Hiring of seasonal firefighters is underway. New firefighters will attend training at ODF and interagency fire schools across the state in June.
  • Permanent and returning firefighters will take fire line refresher training over the next two months.
  • Hundreds of miles of fire hose have been cleaned and rolled, ready for use statewide.

Last year ODF had great success testing out infrared technology. Carried on aerial vehicles, the equipment was able to see through heavy smoke on two Oregon wildfires – Horse Prairie and Eagle Creek. These systems provide sharp images and real-time fire mapping for fire managers, boosting safety and tactical planning. This year ODF is incorporating these technologies into its toolkit.

ODF’s Aviation Manager Neal Laugle said the increasing use of various types of aircraft in recent years highlights the importance of keeping up with new technology to achieve the agency’s mission. “From detection to fire mapping and active wildfire suppression, aircraft continue to play a critical role in the fight to save lives, resources and property,” said Laugle.

Last year, contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF, more than 100 hours above average, he said. For 2018 the agency has contracted the same number of aircraft as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large airtanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use. We also have call-when needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft. Among these agreements is one for the use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant should the situation warrant.”

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

“Uncontrolled fires can be devastating. Our relationships with our partners are invaluable to support prevention and suppression efforts statewide,” said Ellis.

With smoke from the 2017 wildfires still fresh in the minds of Oregonians, the Oregon Department of Forestry is already gearing up for this summer’s wildfires.

The agency’s Interim Fire Operations Manager Blake Ellis said a lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes each winter and spring. “We work to ensure firefighters are equipped and ready to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires all year, with a special emphasis on being staffed and ready for the drier months,” said Ellis. ” We essentially double our firefighting forces going into the summer, when wildfire risk is highest.”

Readiness activities include:

  • Contracts and agreements for firefighting equipment, aircraft and other resources have been signed.
  • A new policy governing use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles (also known as drones or UAVs) has been adopted. These systems will support fire protection and natural resource management.
  • Hiring of seasonal firefighters is underway. New firefighters will attend training at ODF and interagency fire schools across the state in June.
  • Permanent and returning firefighters will take fire line refresher training over the next two months.
  • Hundreds of miles of fire hose have been cleaned and rolled, ready for use statewide.

Last year ODF had great success testing out infrared technology. Carried on aerial vehicles, the equipment was able to see through heavy smoke on two Oregon wildfires – Horse Prairie and Eagle Creek. These systems provide sharp images and real-time fire mapping for fire managers, boosting safety and tactical planning. This year ODF is incorporating these technologies into its toolkit.

ODF’s Aviation Manager Neal Laugle said the increasing use of various types of aircraft in recent years highlights the importance of keeping up with new technology to achieve the agency’s mission. “From detection to fire mapping and active wildfire suppression, aircraft continue to play a critical role in the fight to save lives, resources and property,” said Laugle.

Last year, contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF, more than 100 hours above average, he said. For 2018 the agency has contracted the same number of aircraft as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large airtanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use. We also have call-when needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft. Among these agreements is one for the use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant should the situation warrant.”

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

“Uncontrolled fires can be devastating. Our relationships with our partners are invaluable to support prevention and suppression efforts statewide,” said Ellis.

Drone lands, catches fire, ignites wildfire

(UPDATED at 11:27 a.m. MST March 7, 2018)

The drone that landed, caught fire, and ignited what became a 335-acre fire in Northern Arizona was battery-powered and approximately 16″ x 16″, a spokesperson for the Coconino National Forest said. The operator reported the fire and was later cited for causing timber, trees, slash, brush, or grass to burn. The spokesperson did not know exactly how the drone caught fire.

****

(Originally published at 4:32 p.m. MST March 6, 2018)

Just a couple of hours ago we wrote about how proud the Department of the Interior is of their drone program (as they should be). And there’s no doubt that Unmanned Aerial Systems can play an important part in improving situational awareness for wildland firefighters.

But today  investigators have determined that the preliminary cause of a wildfire north of Flagstaff is a drone that landed and caught fire. At 3:25 p.m. MST Tuesday the Coconino National Forest said firefighters had stopped the spread of the resulting wildfire after it burned 335 acres near Kendrick Park by Forest Roads 514 and 524.

kendrick fire map arizona drone

There is no information yet about the operator of the drone or if it was powered by a battery or gasoline.

All of these photos were provided by the Coconino National Forest.

Kendrick Fire Arizona

Kendrick Fire Arizona

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Drone detects spot fire while other aircraft grounded

It occurred on a wildfire in Southern Oregon during very smoky conditions

The Department of the Interior has been proactive and innovative recently regarding the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones, in land management. And they don’t hesitate to push out information about how they are using the small remote controlled helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.

In January the Department released a large, fancy, colorful infographic extolling the virtues of the drone program. They reported that 312 unmanned aircraft managed by the Office of Aviation Services supports everything from fighting wildfires to monitoring dams and mapping wildlife. In 2017, 200 certified DOI UAS pilots flew 4,976 flights in 32 states. The largest category of flights, 39 percent, was for training and proficiency, with 30 percent used for mapping and 14 percent for interagency fire management.

Now another large, fancy, colorful infographic (1.1 MB) is touting how a drone detected a spot fire across a fireline. It happened during very smoky conditions last year in Oregon:

“August 2017, two of the Alaska Type 1 Incident Management Team’s remote pilots flew a drone in support of a burnout operation on the Umpqua North Fire Complex in Southern Oregon. The burnout was conducted as a necessary means to restrict the fires encroachment towards a five mile stretch of highway 138, where the Toketee Dam power plant, houses, and the USFS Toketee Ranger Station were located. The values at risk were estimated to be worth in excess of $50 million. Smoke limited visibility to 100 feet and grounded all manned aircraft. The drone used was a small battery powered quadcopter fixed with an IR [infrared] camera providing a live video feed to firefighting personnel.

“The flight’s objective was to provide situational awareness for the division supervisor during the burnout operation” the infographic says. “A secondary objective was to monitor an active section of the fire, which was sending airborne firebrands behind the established control line. During the operation, a spot fire was discovered utilizing the IR [infrared] camera feed. The location was established, division supervisor notified and several resources dispatched to contain it before it got out of control.”

drone wildfire detection
A portion of the DOI’s latest drone infographic.

According to the DOI, drones:drone cost

  • “Limits exposure and reduces risk to pilots and wildland firefighters.
  • Able to fly when manned aircraft are not able.
  • Limits cost – Each 3DR Solo drone costs $1,800. The IR sensor package costs $6,000. Other costs are the wages for the operator. If that mission was flown with a contracted light helicopter: AStar 350 B3 costs $3,480.00 for daily availability and $1,500 per flight hour.
  • Easily packable and able to fly in remote locations.”

Department of Interior conducted nearly 5,000 UAS flights in 2017

707 flights were for fire management

Above: map showing the location of Department of the Interior UAS flights in the Great Basin Geographic Area in 2017.

(Originally published at 10:10 a.m. MT February 22, 2018)

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is rapidly adopting the use of drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In 2017, 200 certified pilots flew 4,976 flights in 32 states. The largest category of flights, 39 percent, was for training and proficiency, with 30 percent used for mapping and 14 percent for interagency fire management. About 1 percent was for search and rescue — 29 flights in Southern California, 16 in the Great Basin, and 1 in the Southwest. Law enforcement accounted for 75 flights.

The Department’s fleet of 312 unmanned aircraft managed by the Office of Aviation Services supported everything from fighting wildfires to monitoring dams and mapping wildlife.

This past fire season, the DOI conducted 707 drone missions on 71 individual wildfires. Drones were used by firefighters to gain a tactical advantage on wildfires by allowing them to improve their surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. The data and information gathered during these flights helped support strategic planning for fighting wildfires through the detection of hotspots, improved mapping, and advanced monitoring of wildfires.

“The Department of the Interior has worked hard to build a UAS program that is a leader in non-Department of Defense applications,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Safety, Resource Protection, and Emergency Services Harry Humbert. “This technology opens limitless possibilities for resource managers. The Department is proud of the collaboration that uses technology to support wildland fire and natural resource management more safely and more efficiently than ever before.”

The program started flying missions in 2010 with 208 flights. The aircraft are fitted with video cameras, infrared heat sensors, and other equipment that instantly deliver high resolution images.  The DOI unmanned fleet includes 3DR Solo Quadcopters and Pulse Vapor 55TM Helicopters.  The newest addition, a Hybrid VTOL Fixed-Wing, joins the fleet in early 2018.

“We’ve helped DOI programs accomplish their goals for an average of one-tenth of the cost in one-seventh the time of traditional means,” said Jeff Rupert, Acting Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. “Adding drone support to fire suppression efforts could dramatically reduce the size and cost of wildfires, potentially saving millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of acres with triple the hours of critical aviation support.”

The next stage of the Department’s UAS program starts soon with the testing of a new class of drones to assist in fire suppression and fuels management. Scheduled for field trials later this spring, the new drones could assist firefighters with prescribed fires and with suppression operations, especially during times when traditional firefighting aircraft can’t fly due to smoky conditions.

 

Department of Interior UAS drone graphic Department of Interior UAS drone graphic

DARPA wants to launch and recover swarms of drones from a C-130

In 2009 and 2013 two companies proposed concepts for aerial firefighting that involved launching drones from motherships

Above: an artists concept of a swarm of drones launched from a C-130. Department of Defence image.

Launching drones from an aircraft is not new — that’s the definition of an air-launched cruise missile. But recovering it in mid-air on the mothership has not been done.

From the NavyTimes:

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency plans to demonstrate the ability to launch and recover swarms of drones from a C-130 sometime in 2019, according to statements by the agency and by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, one of two companies contracted to design prototype of the drones. The other is Dynetics.

Once dispatched, the drones would be outfitted with different payloads in order to accomplish an assortment of missions, to include ISR, electronic warfare, signals intelligence and even kinetic effects.

“When the [drones] complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours,” according to DARPA.

Each drone would be capable of a remaining on station for one hour at a range of 300 nautical miles while carrying a 60-pound payload, according to General Atomics.

The company is incorporating commercial technology to drive down the cost of the [drones]. The goal is for each drone to come in under $500,000 per unit, a company representative told Defense News, a sister publication, at an August demonstration.

Two proposals with similarities to this concept have been proposed for aerial firefighting, but did not include the possibility of recovering the drones on the mothership while in flight.

In 2009 John A. Hoffman, with Fire Termination Equipment, Inc., applied for a U. S. Patent for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that would be transported by a mothership, either internally or externally, and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground. After dropping retardant on the fire it would land to reload, or might be a single use aircraft and would be “destroyed in the release step”. In the latter case the UAV would be “possibly constructed of frangible material so as to crash into the fire area”.

Fire Termination Equipment concept
Fire Termination Equipment concept, from the patent application.

In 2013 we wrote about another concept, by Nitrofirex. Their UAVs would be transported in a large mothership and released through the rear cargo door. The folded wings would deploy and the aircraft would glide autonomously to the target then “automatically and with great precision” release the water or retardant. The small engine which had been idling would power the ship back to the tanker base where it would be reloaded and inserted back into a mothership. There is even a video:

If the DARPA program comes to fruition, it is hard to see how a UAV carrying 60 pounds, or about 7 gallons of retardant, could have a meaningful effect on a wildfire. We were not able to determine how many gallons the other two proposals could carry. If the UAV was scaled up to carry at least 1,000 gallons, you’re probably not going to get many of them in a C-130. However, a C-5A Galaxy might be a difference-maker. That is, if price is no object.