Forest Service not using $100,000 worth of drones

Sky Seer drone
Victor Torres of Chang Industry holds a Sky Seer drone used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department. It may be similar to those purchased by the USFS. Photo by Xeni Jardin April 6, 2006.

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.

More information about the USFS drone program is at the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility website:

Students design fire-hunting UAV

Fire-hunting UAV
From left: Jennifer Hull, Steven Vo, Matthew Mannebach, Robert Harden and Coryn Mickelson with the fire-hunting UAV they designed and built over the summer at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Image courtesy of Mike Logan.

From NASA:

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.”

Joe Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center

K-MAX helicopter converted to unmanned aircraft system

K-MAX, side
K-MAX at Custer, SD, July 10, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

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.

K-MAX, front

Stunning UAV video of bushfire

UAV video bushfire near Lithgow, NWS
Still image from a UAV video of a bushfire near Lithgow, NWS

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 UAV was piloted by Cividrones.

Predator drone being used on Rim Fire

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft
MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle

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.

Wildfire Today has more information about the Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park that is updated daily with maps and current information.

Oklahoma firefighters may use a drone on wildfires this year

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.

Here is a video report about the UAV.
NewsOn6.com – Tulsa, OK – News, Weather, Video and Sports – KOTV.com |

Concept for UAV air tanker

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”.

NitrofirexThanks to a comment by Jerome on a recent article here about FAA approvals for the use of UAVs, we are now aware of a similar concept, this time by Nitrofirex, which appears to be based in Spain. Much more information is available about the Nitrofirex system than Mr. Hoffman’s idea.

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.

Nitrofirex screen grab
Nitrofirex UAV air tankers. Screen grab from the video.

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.

FAA approvals for the use of UAVs

FAA approvals for drones
FAA approvals for drones. Map by Electronic Frontier Foundation.

We ran across an interesting map put together by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that displays locations where the FAA has issued permits authorizing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones in the United States. Here is a link to an interactive version of the map with more information.

Below we have pasted some information from the map with a few details about land management agencies that have had these permits. Two of them have expired, and two are still active.
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