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.
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.
This is not the first time that a large Predator-type drone has been used to collect real-time imagery of wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.
Here is an excerpt from the StarTribune with more information about the current use of the National Guard’s Predator:
…While unmanned aircraft have mapped past fires, use of the Predator will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.
The plane, the size of a small Cessna, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, allowing fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire’s direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.
The drone is being flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport, both in Southern California. It generally flew over unpopulated areas on its 300-mile flight to the Rim Fire. Outside the fire area it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.
Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have been in the news recently. FireFlight UAS, a company in Oklahoma that manufactures small versions of the aircraft, is adding to the hype by marketing their products to firefighters. According to NewsOn6, they have convinced John Hansen, the Director of the Oklahoma Council on Firefighter Training, the vehicles could provide valuable intelligence during suppression of wildfires.
In December, 2009, Wildfire Today covered a patent application filed by John A. Hoffman for an air tanker, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), that would be transported by a mother ship and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground, and after dropping retardant on the fire, 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”.
Multiple Nitrofirex UAVs would be transported in a large mother ship 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 mother ship.
According to the company the system could also be used:
“To combat a nuclear, biological or chemical emergency
To act on meteorological phenomena.
To combat pests or to spray crops in remote or inaccessible areas.
For night time fumigation of drug plantations.”
We were not able to find any specifications about the aircraft regarding retardant capacity, speed, range, or cost.
Assuming that the cost, firefighter safety, and design issues are solvable, the only portion of the concept that troubles me is the assumption that an air tanker could, without a pilot either on-board or at a remote location, effectively drop retardant in the exact location where it was needed and at an appropriate height above ground. In flat terrain over a slow-moving fire this might be possible, but in mountainous areas it would be a challenge. Especially if a “squadron” of them were released at the same time.
What if…. an orbiting aircraft or a ground-based firefighter a safe distance away had a laser designator which the UAV could use as a target? Much like the military does for smart bombs and missiles. Terrain-following radar such as that used in the F-111C could make the drops more accurate and effective.
The company has developed a video which explores the UAV air tanker concept.
Presentations were made by Dennis Pratte, manager of the FAA’s General Aviation/Commercial Division, on public operations conducted by commercial operators on contract to a government agency; and by Frank Gladics, former senior staff member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on legislative issues relative to aerial firefighting.
Other agenda items included unmanned aviation vehicles (UAV), governmental economic crises, and wildfire aircraft operations.
The next meeting of the committee will be on March 5, at HELI-EXPO 2013 in Las Vegas.