Fire drones

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The feature story in the June issue of Aerospace America is titled “Fire Drones”. It covers the limitations and possible benefits of using unmanned aircraft over wildfires to collect intelligence and possibly one day to haul supplies and even drop water. Below is an excerpt from the article:


…One way to [map fires, move supplies, relay communications, and drop water] without threatening piloted aircraft would be to fly unmanned aircraft over fires when darkness or smoke prevents manned aircraft from flying near a blaze. That’s what Mark Bathrick and Bradley Koeckeritz of the U.S. Interior Department are proposing. Bathrick, a former U.S. Navy aviator and test pilot, directs the department’s Aviation Services Office; Koeckeritz is the unmanned aircraft specialist there.

They note that in January, the FAA and Interior Department signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Interior to use unmanned aircraft weighing 55 pounds or less and flying below 400 feet to monitor natural resources and to conduct search and rescue missions on the agency’s land. Interior personnel can now fly unmanned aircraft after submitting a special type of COAs — Certificates of Waiver or Authorization — to the FAA, called a COA by notification. Unlike traditional COAs, the Interior Department’s enables it to file flight plans and fly immediately without waiting for the FAA to approve the plan.

Koeckeritz and Bathrick want to establish a similar policy to test unmanned or optionally piloted planes against fires. They know that it could take years before the FAA establishes rules to allow manned and unmanned aircraft to operate in the same airspace at the same time. Hence their proposal to fly unmanned at night in the mountains or through smoke to ferry food, water, fuel, chainsaws and other supplies to firefighters. Piloted planes would be nowhere around in those situations.

On a good day, when conditions permit, manned aircraft typically support firefighters for about eight hours. “With optionally piloted aircraft, we have the potential to more than double those hours,” Koeckeritz says. “If a pilot could fly the aircraft during the day and operate it remotely at other times, that could make a substantial impact on our ability to contain and eventually extinguish fires.”

One thing I’m surprised the author did not point out is the option to fly an intelligence collecting drone at an altitude above all of the other firefighting aircraft, higher than the helicopters, air tankers, lead planes, and air attack. As long as it remained in the Temporary Flight Restriction, interference with piloted aircraft would be minimized. This, I believe, is what the Predator B borrowed from the California National Guard did when it was flying for 20 hours at a time over the Rim Fire that burned 257,000 acres in and near Yosemite National Park in 2013.

These videos describe the use the Predator on the Rim Fire.

HERE is a link to a 17-second video which can’t be embedded, but it shows the operator’s screen.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to @jetcitystar.

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3 thoughts on “Fire drones”

  1. Gathering intell on fires utilizing UAVs would probably be worthwhile…using them to re supply at night isn’t necessary.

    A UAV was used on the 2011 Montezuma fire in southern Arizona with great success. The UAV provided excellent video (including infra-red) of the incident from 18,000 feet msl.

  2. In 2008, after the presidential election, Lockheed Martin supposed that the new administration would reduce defense spending. In an effort to diversify their income stream, they were looking at fire control. They held a small “think tank” session one week, and I guess someone was sick, because I was able to attend. The guy that set to me came in and promptly spilled his coffee on the computer keyboard in front of him (each of us had a keyboard for brainstorming inputs). He was the UAS/UAV specialist from the USFS Washington DC office, but was based in Ogden or SLC, UT.
    Among the many items offered were a GPS locator for every firefighter, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and a set of glasses/goggles that would show the location of every crewmember, whichever direction you turned your head to look. They had even determined that it would fit best in the radio harness. Another item was a remote laser wind/temperature detection device that could be mounted in an aircraft, and could simultaneously monitor the temp, windspeed, and direction for multiple helispots on a fire, from above the ATGS platform’s elevation
    Another item they had was an 800 gallon drone. As discussions centered on mixing manned and unmanned assets in the air as being unfavorable, conversations gradually slowed. Then the Lockheed Martin rep said “what if we flew the drones at night?” There was complete silence, you coulda heard a pin drop. They said they could fly a manned “controller” above the drones, and identify drop areas by laser, that the drone pilots could see, and make retardant drops at night. A “fleet of drones” working all night, when the fire behavior was lowest, when firefighters were not on the fireline, and you wake up to a fire lined with mud. Hmmmm….

  3. I have been waiting for this to come to fruition. It would be great to have a full time ISR platform in addition to the ATGS / Lead / ASM to provide not only info to command and ops staff at the ICP but to the Branches / Divs / Groups in the field. Tablets linked to the feed? Seems pretty doable. Night time operations….maybe? In isolated / uninhabited areas only in my opinion. One of my worries would be command and general staff reaching out from the ICP to direct tactical actions on the ground as the commanders have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past decade and a half. We still need boots and tracks on the ground to get this job done.

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