Might the USFS acquire military surplus Predator drones?

With 24 hours of endurance they could provide continuous real-time intelligence to firefighters on the ground.

Above: MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

A decision by the U.S. Air Force to retire an aircraft could help the U.S. Forest Service and other wildland fire agencies provide a safer working environment for their firefighters.

The Air Force will stop flying their MQ-1 Predator drones as early as July 1 of this year as they completely transition to the much more capable MQ-9 Reaper. The MQ-1 was never designed to carry weapons since it was built with a payload capacity of only 200 pounds. Eventually some of the aircraft had their wings and hard points beefed up and were able to carry various combinations of Hellfire, Stinger, and Griffin missiles.

The replacement, the MQ-9, can carry up to 4,000 pounds of both missiles and bombs.

A long-endurance drone orbiting over a wildland fire for up to 24 hours at a time would help provide an often missing and very important piece of situation awareness information — the real time location of the fire and the location of personnel and equipment. We call this the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety.

Using its true color and infrared sensors it could help fireline supervisors make decisions about where to deploy, and more importantly not deploy, firefighters based on their view of exactly where the fire is, the intensity, and the rate of spread. Too many firefighters have perished in part because they were not aware of where the fire was in relation to their location.

Drones have been used before on wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.

And in 2013 we wrote:

The California National Guard is operating a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle over the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park. The MQ-1 Predator is streaming real-time video down to the Incident Command Post and reportedly alerted firefighters to a flare-up they otherwise would not have immediately seen.

A drone orbiting over a fire could also serve as a radio repeater and provide an aerial hub for a network of location trackers carried by firefighters which would enable icons representing their real time locations to be shown on maps.

In recent years the US Forest Service has shown a willingness to utilize discarded military aircraft, such as the Sherpa and the HC-130H.
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Drone used to burn debris on power line

drone power line fire debris
A drone uses fire to remove debris from a power line in China. Screen grab from the video below.

Drones are slowly, very slowly, becoming firefighting (and fire-starting) tools. A company in China is using one to burn debris on power lines.

In this video a flame-throwing drone uses fire to remove what appears to be plastic on a high-voltage line.

Earlier we have written about an experimental drone that drops plastic spheres which ignite a prescribed fire after hitting the ground. And the Lockheed Martin and K-Max Corporations have modified a Type 1 helicopter that can be remotely-piloted to drop water on a fire and haul cargo in an external load.

Video from a drone over site of the fireworks explosion in Mexico

Yesterday a series of explosions at a fireworks market in Tultepec, a city about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Mexico City, killed 32 people. The city bills itself as the country’s fireworks capital. The market consisted of approximately 80 small structures from which vendors sold fireworks.

The video above of the scene after most of the explosions had run their course illustrates how a drone could enhance the situational awareness of firefighters.

CNN reports there was a similar disaster at the site 11 years ago:

After the 2005 blast, officials separated stalls at the market in an effort to prevent fires from spreading. Local government officials last week described it as “the safest market in Latin America.” In a statement, Mexican Pyrotechnics Institute Director Juan Ignacio Rodarte Cordero said the market had “perfectly designed stalls with enough space so that there is no chain reaction fire in case of a spark.”

Tultepec fireworks market
Tultepec fireworks market in 2015. Screenshot from Youtube video.
Tultepec fireworks market
Tultepec fireworks market in 2015. Screenshot from Youtube video.

Lockheed demonstrates four drones

Above: A remotely-piloted K-MAX prepares to demonstrate dropping water on a fire at Griffiss International Airport. Screen shot from the video below.

On November 8 Lockheed Martin showed off four drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), at conference in Rome, New York. The aircraft included a backpack sized Indago 2, a Sikorsky S-76, and a K-MAX.

The K-MAX attempted to drop water on a small fire but overshot its target.

Last year near Boise, Lockheed demonstrated the remotely piloted K-MAX helicopter dropping water on a simulated fire and hauling cargo in an external load.

National Park Service trains drone pilots

“The UAS program will provide us with a valuable tool in many situations to increase situational awareness and decrease risk on search and rescue events and park projects.”
Interagency Aviation Officer, Justin Jager

drone pilots training
National Park Service drone pilots in training. NPS photo by B. Stone.

The first National Park Service (NPS) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) pilots passed “flight school” in late September 2016 and were certified by the Department of the Interior (DOI).

The nine men and women from Grand Canyon National Park and the NPS’ Alaska Region will fly the UAS’s, also known as drones, in support of search and rescue activities, wildland fire and resource monitoring in the national park system.

The new government owned and operated NPS fleet UAS programs at the Grand Canyon and in Alaska are authorized as a three-year operational test and evaluation program. According to Interagency Aviation Officer, Justin Jager, “The UAS program will provide us with a valuable tool in many situations to increase situational awareness and decrease risk on search and rescue events and park projects.”

The NPS pilots will be working closely together and with other DOI bureaus such as the US Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management to integrate UAS flights into NPS operations. The ultimate goal is to reduce risks to personnel, resources and visitors, and shrink costs to the agency for missions normally accomplished with manned aircraft while accomplishing the mandates of the National Park Service.

Launching, landing or operating a commercial or hobby UAS in the National Park System is prohibited unless approved by the National Park Service under a special use permit. The NPS staff pilots operate UAS under an approval process in DOI and NPS policy. The Grand Canyon National Park and Alaska regional programs have been subject to review and approval by the NPS Associate Director of Visitor and Resource Protection.

California passes law enabling firefighters to take out drones

Firefighters will not be liable for damage to a drone that was interfering with emergency operations.

DJI Mavic Pro drone
DJI Mavic Pro drone

Last week the Governor of California signed legislation that removes the liability if a firefighter takes down a drone, or unmanned aerial system (USA), that was interfering with emergency operations.

Airborne firefighters have had to ground their aircraft many times over the last two years when privately operated drones intruded into the airspace over wildland fires. If a drone collides with a helicopter or air tanker the consequences could be very serious.

Senate Bill #807 says in part:

An emergency responder shall not be liable for any damage to an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system, if that damage was caused while the emergency responder was providing, and the unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system was interfering with, the operation, support, or enabling of the emergency services listed in Section 853 of the Government Code.

Emergency responder is defined as “a paid or unpaid volunteer” or “a private entity”.

The price of sophisticated drones has come down in the last year and their capabilities have made them much easier to fly. It is likely that this interference problem on fires is going to get worse before it gets better.

Both DJI and GoPro in the last two weeks announced new, much more transportable systems with folding propeller arms. The DJI Mavic Pro only weighs 1.62 pounds and when folded can fit into the pocket of some cargo pants. The GoPro Karma is half a pound heavier and is about twice as large when folded. They can fly at 35 to 40 mph at a distance of 1.8 to 4.3 miles and cost around $1,000.

Some drone manufacturers, including DJI, are incorporating geofencing software designed to prevent drones from flying near airports, Temporary Flight Restrictions, and other sensitive sites. The Department of the Interior is beta testing a new system that will ultimately prevent drones from flying over a fire even before a TFR is initiated, as long as the dispatchers enter the fire location data into the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) service.

As long as the DJI drone operator is connected to the internet, the system will warn the operator not to fly into the fire area. However at this stage in the development of the system it will only be a warning and can be ignored. DJI and other drone companies could change that next year, making it impossible to fly into a fire area.

DARPA wants to develop a drone dragnet

Dragnet: a network of measures for apprehension (as of criminals)

Above: DARPA’s concept of an aerial dragnet for drones.

Since the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, has investigated and created breakthrough technologies for national security. Their achievements include not only game-changing military capabilities such as precision weapons and stealth technology, but also such icons of modern civilian society such as the Internet, automated voice recognition and language translation, and Global Positioning System receivers small enough to embed in consumer devices.

Their latest goal is to develop a system for the detection of small drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Over the last two years we have seen how they can intrude into the airspace over wildfires, requiring the grounding of firefighting aircraft.

As the price of an off-the-shelf UAS decreases, they become easier to fly and are more adaptable for terrorist or military purposes, U.S. military forces will increasingly be challenged by the need to quickly detect and identify such craft — especially in urban areas, where sight lines are limited and many objects may be moving at similar speeds.

darpaTo achieve the technically difficult goal of mapping small UAS in urban terrain, last week DARPA announced its Aerial Dragnet program. The program seeks innovative technologies to provide persistent, wide-area surveillance of all UAS operating below 1,000 feet in a large city. While Aerial Dragnet’s focus is on protecting military troops operating in urban settings overseas, the system could ultimately find civilian application to help protect U.S. metropolitan areas from UAS-enabled terrorist threats.

“Commercial websites currently exist that display in real time the tracks of relatively high and fast aircraft—from small general aviation planes to large airliners—all overlaid on geographical maps as they fly around the country and the world,” said Jeff Krolik, DARPA program manager. “We want a similar capability for identifying and tracking slower, low-flying unmanned aerial systems, particularly in urban environments.”

Although several systems are being developed for tracking small UAS by extending surveillance methods used in open areas where large line-of-sight buffers mitigate the threat, these systems are impractical for operation in urban terrain. Aerial Dragnet seeks to leapfrog these approaches by developing systems adapted to the fundamental physics of small UAS in urban environments that could enable non-line-of-sight (NLOS) tracking and identification of a wide range of slow, low-flying threats.

The program seeks an array of innovative approaches, but notionally envisions a network of surveillance nodes, each providing coverage of a neighborhood-sized urban area, perhaps mounted on tethered or long-endurance UAS. Using sensor technologies that can look over and between buildings, the surveillance nodes would maintain UAS tracks even when the craft disappear from sight around corners or behind objects.

The output of the Aerial Dragnet system would be a continually updated common operational picture (COP) of the airspace at altitudes below where current aircraft surveillance systems can monitor, disseminated electronically to authorized users via secure data links. Because of the large market for inexpensive small UAS, the program will focus on combining low cost sensor hardware with software-defined signal processing hosted on existing UAS platforms. The resulting surveillance systems would thus be cost-effectively scalable for larger coverage areas and rapidly upgradable as new, more capable and economical versions of component technologies become available.

DARPA’s Aerial Dragnet program seeks teams with expertise in sensors, signal processing, and networked autonomy to achieve its goal. A solicitation detailing the goals and technical details of the program is on FedBizOps.

In a related effort, the U.S. Air Force is requesting proposals for a portable system to detect, identify and defeat a UAS.

Drones are an increasing safety hazard at wildfires; geofencing may help

drone forest fire
A drone flying over a wildfire. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management.

By Ryan Maye Handy and Bill Gabbert

Since 2014 instances of drones shutting down air operations over wildfires has increased despite repeated warnings to the public.

While there is no formal system to track the number of times Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, have invaded the airspace over wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service has managed to collect some numbers thanks to public reports. And the numbers seem to show that warnings to not fly drones over wildfires often go unheeded.

“In spite of increased and ongoing public education from the interagency fire community and incident management teams by way of the internet, social media, press conferences, news release, etc., about the risks and hazards hobby drone operators present to aerial firefighting aircraft, the public continues flying hobby drones near or over wildfires,” said Mike Ferris, a public information officer with the Forest Service.

Earlier this summer, following a spate of issues with drones flying over California wildfires, the National Interagency Fire Center issued a statement cautioning drone pilots that they could face criminal charges if caught flying drones over a fire. Then in July, CALFire made its first arrest of a drone operator, who now faces a misdemeanor charge in connection to flying the drone over a California wildfire. Ferris did not know about criminal charges against other drone pilots in connection to wildfires.

Forest Service officials say that the small aircraft pose a tremendous threat to the low-flying planes that work above firefighters. A collision of a drone and an airtanker, for instance, could be disastrous, Ferris said.

“Aerial firefighting aircraft, such as air tankers and helicopters, fly at very low altitudes, the same as UAS flown by the general public, creating the potential for mid-air collision that could be fatal for aviation and/or ground firefighters, as well as members of the public,” he said.

Nonetheless, problems have persisted. In the past two months, drones flying too close to wildfires grounded planes in New Mexico, Arizona, Minnesota, Alaska, Utah, Montana and California. This year, there have been 34 instances of drones encroaching on firefighting airspace, and 12 times planes were grounded, according to the Forest Service.  According to the June Wildfire Airspace Situations report, aircraft on three fires in Utah were grounded the span of two days in July due to drone activity.

Those numbers are up slightly from 2015, when drones were spotted near wildfires 21 times in five states–California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, Ferris said.

“This resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down on at least ten occasions, which may have caused wildfires to grow larger and unduly threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources,” Ferris said.

This summer, when nearby drones forced the shutdown of air operations in Montana and California, aircraft were grounded for 30 to 45 minutes. Although drones briefly shut down air operations over the Soberanes fire in Northern California, the upset came at a crucial time—just days after the massive fire exploded and was burning with little to no containment. The fire’s incident management team has made anti-drone warnings a permanent fixture on its InciWeb site, where it posts all updates on the fire.

One of the largest manufacturers of drones, DJI, has incorporated a geofencing feature into their drone control software that prevents flying into locations where they don’t belong. The system was recently upgraded to keep the pilotless aircraft away from airports, prohibited and restricted airspace, national security sites, prisons, and power plants, among other locations. Additionally, when a user is connected to the internet, the software will provide live guidance on Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) including those relating to forest fires, major league sporting events, and other changing conditions.

The Department of Interior has implemented a prototype of a system, some might call it a beta version, that provides data allowing the drone manufacturers to add another layer of geofencing. It provides near real time information about the location of wildfires, using data collected by the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) service. During the prototype year, the data is supplied to two volunteer, commercial mapping providers that support drone operations, AirMap and Skyward. It is available on the web and as an IOS app (Airmap) that allows anyone to use the information to avoid wildfires. The fire location data is available online and in the app as soon as the local dispatcher loads the fire location data into the system. It appears on the maps as a 2-mile radius circle along with TFRs.

airmap
A screenshot from the Airmap website showing the area of the Clayton Fire at Lower Lake, California August 15, 2016. The small red circle is the 2-mile radius that appears as soon as the dispatcher enters the location. The larger circle is the TFR.

As long as the DJI drone operator is connected to the internet, the system will warn the operator not to fly into the area, even before a TFR is established. However at this stage, during the prototype or beta period, it will only be a warning and can be ignored. DJI and other drone companies could change that next year, making it impossible to fly into a fire area.

It is hoped that other drone manufacturers, in addition to DJI, will begin to use the real time geofencing data available from the Department of the Interior. But, a weak link in the system is that the drone operator must be connected to the internet to obtain the near real time updates for wildfire location information. Many wildfires occur in remote settings without internet access; however, responsible pilots, whether flying manned or unmanned aircraft, will do pre-flight planning to identify potential hazards along the route prior to their flight. Drone operators are reminded if you see smoke in the vicinity, leave your drone at home. Because, if you fly, firefighting aircraft can’t.

Meanwhile, it seems that the public’s fascination with drone technology drives them to keep flying drones over wildfires. A quick search on Youtube.com turns up many cautionary clips warning drone operators to stay away from wildfires—but there are just as many clips of wildfire footage captured by drones.