Today the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior issued an Interagency Aviation Safety Alert about the hazards of unmanned aerial vehicles operating near wildfires.
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The U.S. National Park Service is banning unmanned aircraft from being used in National Parks. Director Jonathan B. Jarvis today signed a policy memorandum that directs superintendents nationwide to prohibit launching, landing, or operating the aircraft sometimes called drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or Unmanned Aerial Systems.
This is considered a temporary solution, asking each park to develop there own prohibition order, until a Servicewide regulation regarding unmanned aircraft can be implemented. That process can take considerable time, depending on the complexity of the rule, and includes public notice of the proposed regulation and opportunity for public comment.
The agency cited some examples of how the aircraft have caused problems in parks. Last September, an unmanned aircraft flew above evening visitors seated in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater. Park rangers concerned for visitors’ safety confiscated the unmanned aircraft.
In April, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park gathered for a quiet sunset, which was interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft flying back and forth and eventually crashing in the canyon. Later in the month, volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.
An article in today’s Washington Post had a lengthy article written after receiving the results of more than two dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
More than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001, a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic, according to a year-long Washington Post investigation.
Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
In other UAV news, Stillwater County, southwest of Billings, Montana, just spent $19,890 on drone which they intend to use in search and rescue scenarios, wildland fires and floods, and to scout rural residences before serving warrants.
The U.S. Forest Service spent $100,000 in 2007 to buy two Sky Seer drone aircraft that they have not figured out how to use. The story was reported at Environment & Energy and was featured at a web site about forest planning. Apparently the agency purchased the drones seven years ago initially to be used for law enforcement, but FAA regulations and other problems have presented obstacles to the very expensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) taking to the skies.
The information came to light after the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a Freedom of Information Act Request which revealed a little about how the USFS may use the drones. In 2012 the agency created an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advisory Group within their Fire and Aviation Management division which may indicate a desire to use them to gather intelligence over fires.
An article in the Missoulian published May 26, 2013 was titled “U.S. Forest Service drops plans to use drones in Montana, north Idaho”. The reporter was told the agency had no drones. Below is an excerpt:
MISSOULA — The U.S. Forest Service says it has no drone aircraft, but plenty of other people have little UFOs buzzing over the trees in Western Montana.
Last week, Forest Service officials said they’ve dropped plans to use unmanned aerial systems — commonly known as drones — to survey forest fires because of clashes with Federal Aviation Administration rules. While some national forest firefighters in Alaska touted the remote-control planes’ ability to map forest fires in thick smoke, their legality proved a limitation.
“Getting FAA approval to fly one is a lengthy process,” Forest Service Northern Region spokesman Phil Sammon said Friday. “It takes too long to make it practical for a two- or three-week occurrence.”
FAA rules require a drone in U.S. airspace to be in visual range of its pilot at all times. That sets up a Catch-22 problem where if you want to remote-control fly a drone into a smoke column too thick for human pilots to see through, you must still send up a human pilot to keep an eye on the drone.
NASA Langley Student Team Designs Fire-Hunting UAV
Sept 26, 2013
You could say that the idea came to him in a cloud of smoke.
Over the summer, Mike Logan, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, put a group of students to work designing and building an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that could one day help to snuff out fires in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp.
The origins of the project go back to August of 2011. A lightning strike in the swamp sparked a blaze that ended up burning for four months. At one point, wind pushed the smoke as far north as Maryland. Logan, who lives due north of the swamp in South Hampton Roads, often found his house in the path of the acrid cloud.
“After choking down a few dozen clouds worth of peat bog smoke, which I found out I’m allergic to, I thought, you know, there really ought to be a better way,” he said.
So Logan made a phone call to the local fire captain. They had a couple of conversations and visited the swamp to do a sight survey. Logan learned that lightning causes the majority of the fires in the swamp, and that the only way swamp personnel are able to locate fire sources is to hire an outside contractor to do a manned aircraft survey.
It’s an expensive solution, and one that didn’t happen until nearly a week and a half after the 2011 fire started. By that time, the blaze had already spiraled out of control.
But that gave Logan an idea: why not develop a UAV that could fly over the swamp and detect fires before they get out of hand?
It was a simple solution to complex problem, and Logan tasked his student team with bringing it to fruition.
“I said, you know, this would be a perfect opportunity to give them some hands-on learning experience and oh, by the way, solve this massive problem pretty inexpensively,” he said.
The team, which included Aerospace Project interns Jennifer Hull, Robert Harden, Matthew Mannebach and Coryn Mickelson, and Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholars (LARSS) intern Steven Vo, had 10 weeks to design and build the UAV. Logan specified that it had to be low cost and operable by Great Dismal Swamp personnel. It also needed to be deployable within minutes or hours of a storm and able to autonomously detect, provide images of, and provide precise GPS coordinates for, small hotspots that might develop into serious fires.
“At first I was daunted,” said Hull, a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who didn’t have much experience building UAVs prior to tackling Logan’s project.
But Logan guided his team through the process, showing them how to cut foam parts for the UAV on a CNC hot wire machine. He also taught them to apply composite skins like Kevlar and fiberglass using a vacuum bagging system that molds and seals the composites to the body of the aircraft.
In addition, the students had to optimize the UAV’s airflow, install an auto navigation unit, test different motor-propeller combinations, and set up payloads (the aircraft had to carry a video camera and an infrared camera). They even manufactured a camera mount with a 3D printer and a heat sink that was cut using a water jet at NASA Langley’s fabrication shop.
“They learned all these things about how you fabricate stuff that they wouldn’t have gotten at the university,” Logan said.
Vo, a student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, certainly found it enlightening.
“I feel like this hands-on experience will help me become a better designer in the future as I will be able to better understand the feasibility of certain designs and where to compromise between design ideals and ease of manufacturing,” he said.
Toward the end of their 10 weeks, Logan’s team was ready to send its fire-hunting UAV up for a first test flight, but windy conditions thwarted one attempt and a last-second technical glitch stopped another.
Though the students have since left, Logan is hoping to make another attempt soon. Not only would this UAV potentially save the Great Dismal Swamp money, it could also save taxpayers money. Between the 2011 fire and another fire in 2008, taxpayers had to cover nearly $25 million in firefighting costs. That makes the idea of a UAV that could pinpoint hotspots and lead firefighters to them before they get out of hand that much more appealing.
Logan also sees commercial potential for the aircraft, and had the students design it with that in mind.
“The idea is to make this as easy to produce as possible,” he said. “And that was one of the items that I kind of stressed to the students is that hey, every time you have to perform an operation — what the people in the industry call touch labor — every step that you have to make, whether it’s turning a screw, whether it’s a vacuum bagging process or whatever, that costs money.”
Hull, who started the project daunted, but ended it “excited” and “confident,” said it was a great experience.
“There are many people out there who do not feel like they are contributing enough with their job and want to make a bigger and better impact on society, and this internship was amazing in that it let us do that,” she said. “If our UAV or a UAV inspired by ours is ever used by a park ranger in the Great Dismal Swamp and prevents just one wildfire, it will have my made summer.”
Of the 38 K-MAX helicopters that were built, eight are on exclusive use contract with the federal government for wildland firefighting. The U.S. Forest Service likes them because they feel like they can claim they are contracting with Type 1 helicopters even though they almost but not quite meet the minimum standards for Type 1 status, and for the fact that they are much less expensive than fully qualified Type 1 helicopters. The eight ships are operated by Central Copters, Heliqwest, Mountain West Helicopters, Rainier Heli International, Swanson, and Timberline.
Two other K-MAX helicopters have been converted for the military by Lockheed Martin Corporation and Kaman Aerospace Corporation into an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capable of autonomous or remote controlled cargo delivery. Its mission: battlefield cargo resupply for the U.S. military. The two ships have flown more than 1,000 missions in Afghanistan and hauled more than 3 million pounds of cargo that would have otherwise been transported by trucks, which are vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. One goal is to save lives by reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices on cargo convoys.
The helicopters were sent to Afghanistan in November, 2011 for an initial, limited deployment, but have been extended several times. Naval Air Systems Command has decided to continue using the aircraft there indefinitely.
Unlike Predator drones, which are remotely piloted, K-MAX helicopters follow a pre-programmed route using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, and require human intervention only to get started.
It remains to be seen if UAS or UAV aircraft could feasibly be used on fires to drop water or deliver external loads.
The video below of a bushfire was shot by an unmanned helicopter near Lithgow, a city in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales, Australia. While there are several issues that would need to be addressed to deploy one safely over an active wildfire, the benefits of having live aerial streaming video available to firefighters on the ground could be enormous.