Night-flying drone detects spot fire unknown to firefighters

The pilot was able to direct personnel to the location

Above: Screenshot from the Department of the Interior video below.

(Originally published at 3:45 p.m. MDT August 15, 2018)

In 2010 I wrote an article on Wildfire Today about the two military surplus Cobra helicopters the U.S. Forest Service operates. The ships are still with the agency and are used on fires when the electronic systems are working.

These “Firewatch Cobras” have infrared sensors that can detect heat from fires. There is video in the article in which the pilot directs firefighters on the ground to a hot spot near the line on the Jesusita fire near Santa Barbara on May 12, 2009. The heat source is so small that the firefighters walked past it and over it several times, but the pilot could easily see it using the infrared equipment.

That video was filmed during daylight hours. Eight years later we now have the ability to have an unmanned aerial vehicle with sophisticated sensors orbit continuously over a fire, day and night, for 18 to 20 hours depending on the weight of its payload. If an incident management team on a fire activates a couple of these using the recently awarded Call When Needed contract, firefighters can have greatly enhanced situational awareness with near real time video.

Insitu was one of four companies that won CWN contracts in May. On the Taylor Fire in southwest Oregon on August 5, firefighters requested that the company’s ScanEagle aircraft monitor an overnight burn operation they were conducting along a ridge top road. As it orbited in the darkness at 8,500 feet, the sensors and the pilot detected a spot fire about 100 feet outside the fireline in the “green” unburned area.

The pilot talked directly with firefighters in an engine, telling them where it was.

Engine 66 stop there, spot fire is out your passenger door, 100 feet.

As you can see in the video below, the firefighters, it looked like at least three of them, searched the area and found the spot fire, which they said was about one foot square.

Depending on your taste in music, you will either want to turn up the sound in the video, or turn it off. I doubt if there’s any middle ground. There is no narration, so you won’t miss anything with the sound off.


The ScanEagle was launched from and recovered within the Temporary Flight Restriction over the fire. It was flown beyond visual line of sight in accordance with the 2015 FAA/Department of the Interior Memorandum of Understanding.

This is not the first time a drone has detected a spot fire during conditions when most aircraft are unable to fly. In 2017 on the Umpqua North Fire Complex in Southern Oregon a drone found a spot fire when smoke reduced the visibility to only 100 feet, keeping all other aircraft on the ground.

We have often written about the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing in real time the location of the fire and the location of personnel. Many assumed the location of the fire would be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. But apparently the technology, suitable and practical enough to be used on a wildfire, is on a CWN contract.  BOOM!

The location of firefighters can also be solved. The technology exists now. Many agencies are using various systems, especially metropolitan law enforcement and fire organizations, but the federal land management agencies and most of the larger state fire organizations are dragging their feet. Earlier this year CAL FIRE took a step in the right direction when they issued a contract to provide technology in 1,200 state-owned vehicles that will facilitate mission critical data communications over a variety of networks (broadband, narrowband and satellite). This will include tracking the location of firefighting vehicles, but probably not dismounted personnel.

Complex terrain is one of the difficulties in continuously tracking the location of resources on a wildland fire, but there are ways to get around this, including putting radio repeaters in drones, perhaps the same one that is tracking the fire.

One of these days, drones will be on automatic dispatch along with engines, crews, and other aircraft. I know — a lot of deconflicting of aircraft has to be worked out, but it WILL happen.

Insitu UAS map fires
Insitu ScanEagle. Insitu photo.
Insitu UAS map fires
Insitu ScanEagle. Insitu photo.

 

National Guard uses MQ-9 Reaper drone to improve firefighters’ situational awareness

Above: An aircrew from the 163d Attack Wing, California Air National Guard, fly an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft to the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California, Aug. 4, 2018, during a mission to support state agencies. The aircrew conducted fire perimeter scans and spot checks on the blaze, which encompasses the Ranch and River fires and continues to grow. (Photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

By Senior Airman Crystal Housman | California National Guard | Aug. 7, 2018

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. — Five years after a proof-of-concept mission, the MQ-9 Reaper drone has developed into a key asset in California’s fight against wildfires, including the Carr and Mendocino Complex Fires, which are currently burning in Northern California.

“It’s a technology I never thought I’d see,” said Jeremy Salizzoni, a fire technical specialist with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who was embedded with the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California, during 2013’s devastating Rim Fire.

More than 250,000 acres burned in August 2013 as the Rim Fire raged in Tuolumne County, California. At the time, it was the state’s third largest wildfire on record. More than 100 structures were lost in the blaze, which took nine weeks to fully contain.

Game-changing technology

Eleven days after the Rim Fire started, the wing launched a first-of-its kind mission to overfly the fire with an MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted reconnaissance aircraft and beam back real-time video footage of the fire to Salizzoni and wing intelligence analysts working in an operations facility at March.

Through the Predator’s footage, Salizzoni, who was used to driving for hours through rugged terrain to access overlook points and put eyes on the leading edge of a fire, could see any area of the fire he wanted, in real time and without ever leaving the operations facility.

The remotely piloted aircraft’s thermal imaging camera provided a view of the fire unlike anything he’d ever seen. Traditional aerial assets are important, but encounter limitations due to smoke, fuel, altitude and field of view, he said.

“It was such a dramatic change from anything I’d seen in my career,” Salizzoni said.”It was like being blind and then having vision in the blink of an eye.”

He and his colleagues knew they had a new tool in their firefighting toolbox.

“We saw things over the course of that fire that you couldn’t have made up,” Salizzoni said.”I don’t think there’s a better intel resource at our disposal right now.”

During its eight-day emergency activation for the Rim Fire, the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing – the unit’s name at the time – logged more than 150 hours of fire support and was credited with helping firefighters expedite containment.

Domestic response

In the five years since, the 163rd Attack Wing has changed its name and the kind of airplane it flies, but one thing hasn’t changed: the wing’s dedication to domestic disaster response missions right here at home.

RPAs are no longer just trying to prove their worth, said Air Force Maj. Mike Baird, the senior intelligence officer at the 163rd Attack Wing. The wing’s MQ-9 Reaper RPAs – a big-brother to the recently retired Predators – are an in-demand incident awareness and assessment asset preferred by California’s civil authorities when disaster strikes.

The wing has supported more than 20 wildfires since 2013, but it takes more than just airplanes, Baird said. Keeping California safe takes a wing-wide effort.

“What we’ve been doing behind the scenes from maintenance and communications to refining our deployment and personnel processes has led up to our ability to provide an unprecedented level of MQ-9 support,” Baird said.

The wing provided real-time full motion video support over a number of fires in 2017, including California’s most destructive fire on record and also its largest fire to date. More than 5,600 structures were damaged and 22 lives were lost during the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County in October. Two months later, in December, the Thomas Fire ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara counties to become the state’s largest fire on record with more than 280,000 acres burned.

Innovation on the fly

The wing works to refine its techniques and procedures, and works to expand the detailed real-time incident awareness and assessment data it provides to incident commanders. Innovation on the fly is the name of the game.

An investment by James G. Clark, director of Air Force innovation, and Air Force Col. Chris McDonald from the disruptive innovation division in Clark’s office, helped the wing’s Hap Arnold Innovation Center develop a specialized network to push and pull data from RPAs and other data-generating assets from civilian and military organizations.

The network’s customizable data sets – coupled with the RPAs’ real-time thermal imagery – provide incident commanders and first responders a common operating picture they can access from anywhere, anytime.

RPAs proved “an opportunity for people to make tactical and objective based decisions on real time information,” Salizzoni said.

As the Rim Fire nears its fifth anniversary, RPAs are once again in the sky, flying through smoke to deliver data and protect Californians as wildfires ravage the state.

By July 31, the 163rd was on its fifth fire of the summer.

Throughout July, the wing flew nearly 350 hours to support civil authorities working the County, Klamathon, Ferguson, Carr, Mendocino Complex and Eel fires, and is credited with helping to protect thousands of structures in the process. The MQ-9 provided near real-time full motion video and frequent fire-line updates to decision makers determining where to build up future containment lines.

It’s a marathon pace, but the wing’s Airmen up for it, said Air Force 1st Lt. Frank Cruz, officer in charge of the 163rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, whose unit provides direct support for the MQ-9’s around-the-clock fire operations to aid civil authorities.

“Everyone is 100 percent on board,” Cruz said.”They’re all in.”

Drone used to ignite burnout operations on Klondike Fire in Oregon

drone ignite prescribed fire
File photo of drone being used for the first time to ignite a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument, April 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

April 22, 2016 was the first time that a drone, or Unmanned Aerial System, was used to intentionally ignite a managed fire. The University of Nebraska tested a system that had been under development, using it to ignite a portion of a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice, Nebraska. As a proof of concept, it was considered a success. The drone dropped plastic spheres which burst into flame about half a minute after landing on the ground, similar to the ones dropped by helicopters for aerial ignition on large wildfires and prescribed fires.

Using the technology developed by the University of Nebraska, drones are being used to help firefighters conduct firing operations on the Klondike Fire about 25 miles southwest of Grants Pass, Oregon.

Daily updates released by the incident management team between August 8 and 13, 2018 documented the use of the drones for lighting strategic fires to even out and increase the depth of burned areas adjacent to fire lines in difficult terrain where firefighter safety could be compromised. Firefighters say drone technology  used on the Klondike Fire has enabled aerial observation and firing operations to continue during smoky conditions, which aids fire containment and completion of contingency lines.

The video below from the Mail Tribune has an interview with Steve Stroud, fleet manager with the Office of Aviation Services, explaining how the aircraft is used. An article at the site has more information.

The next video was filmed in 2016 at the first test of a drone to ignite a prescribed fire.

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

drone nebraska ignite prescribed fire
File photo of the drone used at the 2016 test at Homestead National Monument. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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

Aircraft grounded on Grassy Ridge Fire after near miss with drone

KIFI reported that all air operations were shut down on the Grassy Ridge Fire north of Idaho Falls, Idaho after a near midair collision between a drone and a helicopter on August 1.

Below is an excerpt from an article at KIFI’s web site:

Officials say the[helicopter] pilot was fortunate enough to have spotted the other aircraft just in time to take evasive action and narrowly avoid a midair collision.

A photo of a white pickup truck speeding away from the area of the near miss was taken by a flight crew member.

The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office was notified and Law Enforcement officers were dispatched to the area.

All aircraft in use for fighting the Grassy Ridge Fire were immediately grounded and will remain so, hampering the fire suppression and repair efforts, until it can be verified that the airspace within the TFR over the fire is safe to fly in again.

The 99,502-acre Grassy Ridge Fire has a fireline completely around it for days, but Incident Commander Taiga Rohrer is calling it 97 percent contained.

On or about July 29 fire officials posted this message on InciWeb:

Grassy Ridge Fire contained

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

Another drone ignites wildfire in Oregon

Above: Photo by Fire Marshall Jeffrey Pricher

We just found out about another drone that started a wildfire in Oregon. This time time it happened in Scappoose about 25 miles northwest of Portland. According to a press release from the Scappoose Fire District, the drone crashed June 26 in FAA restricted airspace near Scappoose Industrial Airpark. It landed in dry grass and sparked a fire.

After trying unsuccessfully to stomp the fire out, the operators called 911. It burned about a quarter acre before firefighters put it out.

The operators were issued a verbal warning for using the aircraft in restricted airspace. FAA regulations require recreational drone operators to give notice for flights within five miles of an airport to both the airport operator and air traffic control tower, if the airport has a tower. However, recreational operations are not permitted in Class B airspace around most major airports without specific air traffic permission and coordination.

drone starts wildfire Oregon
Photo by Fire Marshall Jeffrey Pricher

The Fire Marshall for the Fire District, Jeffrey Pricher, told us that as the drone was flying, a malfunction occurred. The aircraft went out of control and crashed. As for the exact cause of the ignition of the fire, he said that after an initial examination the battery looked intact. So he is considering something related to one of the electric motors, but the investigation is still ongoing. Normally they operate at about 100 degrees, he said, but if there was an anomaly or an object was impinging on one of the moving parts, friction could cause an elevated temperature and failure of the motor.

Mr. Pricher said this was a racing drone, which normally do not have legs, landing gear, or anything that would keep the motors elevated off the ground more than a fraction of an inch when it lands upright. If it did have an overheated motor, landing (or crashing) in a grassy field could put the motor in close contact with flammable vegetation.

On July 12 KEZI reported on a drone battery that caused a small fire in a residence a couple of months ago in Eugene, Oregon. The owner of a Propel X-5 drone had just charged the battery for 15 minutes:

[Tina] Thomas said they unplugged the battery and then noticed it was smoking. That’s when the trouble began.

“Then it just shot out. I mean it was like a missile,” Thomas said.

She said the battery shot right into the carpet and lit it on fire, and then the charger port shot into the dog bed and lit that on fire.

They put out the fire but had to replace the carpet. And thankfully, the dog was not in its bed at the time.

On July 10 a racing drone crashed when a dog jumped on the person flying it near Springfield, causing him to drop the controller. The small aircraft spun out of control, crashed, and as the video kept recording, started grass on fire within three seconds. It burned about two acres before firefighters put it out.

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

CWN drone used to map Martin Fire

Above: File photo of a Silent Falcon drone poised for launch. Image credit: Silent Falcon UAS Technologies.

(Originally published at 6:48 p.m. MDT July 13, 2018)

The Department of the Interior continues to aggressively move toward the use of drones to provide information for land managers. The agency is purchasing dozens of them and recently issued Call When Needed (CWN) contracts for contractor operated and maintained drones to be used on fires.

On July 11 the Bureau of Land Management activated one of the new CWN drones to map the HUGE Martin Fire that has burned 435,000 acres in Northern Nevada. The company that got the call was Bridger Aerospace, an outfit that also had nine Aero Commanders under contract for Type 1 Air Attack services, used as a platform for coordinating airborne firefighting aircraft. Drones, for Bridger, is a new field, and they have partnered with Silent Falcon UAS Technologies for the use of their Silent Falcon drone.

Martin Fire progression map
July 7 was a big day on the Martin Fire.

During its first day on the fire, today, July 13, it has conducted four sorties for a total of 5.6 hours, according to Gill Dustin, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Manager for the BLM. The aircraft is being used to map unburned islands inside the perimeter, look for remaining heat on the fire and outside the fireline, and identify structures and other infrastructure to determine if they have been damaged or not. The company brought four aircraft to the fire, but so far are only using one at a time.

IR photo Martin Fire drone
Infrared photo taken by Silent Falcon UAS with Ascent Vision CM-100 Gimbal. Credit: Bridger Aerospace.
aerial photo Martin fire drone
Screen capture with incident map on the left. Camera keystone (field of view) is the red cone on the right side of the aircraft. Credit (Bridger Aerospace). Camera view is on the right.

The BLM has secured from the FAA an Emergency Course of Action (ECOA) to enable the aircraft to operate within the Temporary Flight Restriction. Kurt Friedemann, Vice President of Bridger Aerospace, said that on the Martin Fire it has been flying at 8,000 feet, which in that area is about 3,000 feet above the ground.

The Silent Falcon is powered by an electric motor drawing its power from a battery. But there are also solar panels on the wings which can add a small amount of additional power to the battery while in flight. With the fuselage made of carbon fiber, it is quite light and energy efficient. Mr. Friedemann said that occasionally the aircraft can take advantage of thermals, like a glider, to extend the amount of time it can loiter over a target. Normally they expect to get at least 5 hours of flight time out of the aircraft. It is launched on a spring-loaded catapult, and has no landing gear. It lands via parachute — upside down to protect the payload. The entire system can be transported in a pickup truck.

Silent Falcon drone
File photo of a Silent Falcon drone. Image credit: Silent Falcon UAS Technologies

The payload can be changed to meet the needs of the end user, but for this mission it has electro-optical and infrared sensors.

On the Martin fire, which is almost 60 miles long east to west, the Silent Falcon is operating out of line of sight, which puts it into a different certification category than your typical consumer drone.

To integrate the drone into the management of the incident there are two critical positions that are filled by the incident —  an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Manager and a Data Specialist. The manager helps to integrate the system into the Incident Management Team structure.  A drone, especially while live-streaming video, can generate a crap-ton of data. Managing that can be problematic if it’s not figured out in advance and carefully curated as it is collected.

Mr. Friedemann said that just 10 days ago they completed 7 days of training for personnel and carding for the aircraft in West Wendover, Nevada. And now they have their flight crew spiked out miles from the Incident Command Post in one of the most sparsely populated areas of the United States.

Colorado beta testing drone system that would enhance firefighters’ situational awareness

(Originally published at Wildfire Today)

The state of Colorado is working on a system that would use drones to provide live video of wildfires to wildland firefighters’ cell phones. The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting is beta testing a DVI Mavic drone that would push the real time video to firefighters using software developed by the military, Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK).

The program has the capability of displaying data from tracking devices carried by soldiers, or firefighters, and identifying their location on a map, which in this case could also show the fire in real time.

If they are successful in developing and implementing a system that can provide to fire managers real time information about the location of a wildfire AND firefighting resources, it would achieve what we call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing those two elements of information.

The DJI Mavic can only stay in the air for 20 to 30 minutes before having to return to base to replace the battery. So this beta test is probably only a proof of concept attempt, perhaps leading to a more robust drone, rotor or fixed wing, that could stay in the air for a much longer period of time.

PIlatus PC12 Colorado
One of the two State of Colorado’s Pilatus PC12’s, was photographed in March of 2016 in Sacramento.

Colorado already has the ability to transmit near real time imagery of fires from their two MultiMission Aircraft, Pilatus PC12’s. They are integrated with the Colorado Wildfire Information System, a geospatial database that displays incident images and details to local fire managers through a web based application.

In Oregon, drone crashes, starts wildfire

Above: The burned drone. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

(Originally published on Wildfire Today July 11, 2018)

A small drone started a vegetation fire when it crashed near Springfield, Oregon this week. On July 10 Cameron Austin-Connolly was flying his drone over a field when a large unleashed dog left its owner, ran and jumped on him. The impact knocked the controller out of his hands and the drone immediately went out of control and crashed. As you can see in the video (that Mr. Austin-Connolly gave us permission to use) within about three seconds the still operating camera recorded flames.

You can also see two dogs running at Mr. Austin-Connolly.

He wrote on his Facebook page:

My drone crashes and when I go to look for it I saw smoke and flames so I called 911. Springfield FD quickly showed up and put out the flames. They even returned my drone and gopro. The Fire Marshall said that was their first drone fire.

In case you’re wondering about the reaction of the dogs’ owner, Mr. Austin-Connolly said he just kept walking and didn’t say anything.

Mr. Austin-Connolly told us, “it is a hand built first person view drone, or FPV done. Some people also call them racing drones since they are fast.”

He said it was using a lithium polymer, or “lipo”, battery.

Most small consumer-sized drones use lithium ion batteries, while racing drones generally operate with lithium polymer batteries.

The battery that was in the drone. The label says: “Infinity, 1300 MAH, race spec”. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

In March we wrote about the crash of a drone that started a 335-acre fire on the Coconino National Forest in Northern Arizona. Few details about that drone were available, except that it was about 16″ x 16″.  The comments by our readers developed a great deal of information about rechargeable batteries and the possibility of them catching fire. We also learned about several other drone crashes that started fires.

In May we published an article about the fact that electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries present a complex and hazardous situation for firefighters responding to a vehicle accident.

The fact is, there are many examples of both lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries catching fire. There is no doubt that when a lithium ion battery is subject to an impact, a short circuit can occur in one or more of the cells, creating heat which may ignite the chemicals inside the battery. This can spread to the adjoining cells and lead to the condition known as “thermal runaway” in which the fire escalates. If as in a vehicle, there are thousands of batteries, it can be extremely difficult to extinguish the blaze. And worse, it can reignite days or weeks later.

When compact fluorescent light bulbs were introduced they saved energy but were slow to get fully bright and many people thought the color of the light was unpleasant. I knew then that it was immature lighting technology. There were going to be better options. Now LED bulbs save even more energy, come in various light temperatures (colors), and illuminate at near full brightness immediately. For now, they are expensive, but will still pay for themselves in three to five years.

Lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries are the fluorescent bulbs of battery technology. They are too heavy, don’t hold enough power, and they too often catch fire. No one wants to be on an airplane when flames erupt from an e-cigarette, cell phone, wireless headphones, or laptop computer, all of which can ignite even when turned off.

So until that next major step in battery technology occurs, what do we do about drones? Is the risk so low that we should not be concerned? When land managers enact fire restrictions during periods of high wildfire danger, do we also prohibit the use of drones? Should drones ever be allowed over vegetation in a fire-prone environment during wildfire season? And what about the hundreds of drones owned and operated by the Department of the Interior that flew 5,000 missions last year? Not all are battery operated, but some are.

We thank Mr. Austin-Connolly for providing the information, photos, and the video. When we asked, he said, “If my experience can be helpful I’m all for it.”

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