Night-flying drone being tested over Idaho wildfire

Launching an Aerosonde Mark 4.7
Launching an Aerosonde Mark 4.7. Aerosonde file photo.

Managers on the Tepee Spring Fire on the Payette National Forest in Idaho are testing a drone, or unmanned aerial system (UAS), collecting intelligence at night when other firefighting aircraft are grounded. Below are excerpts from an AP article:

Testing of the 55-pound craft with a 12-foot wingspan [was] scheduled to start Thursday night [September 17, 2015], Air Operations Branch Director Gary Munson of the U.S. Forest Service said. “If the night flights go well, we hope to gradually integrate it into daytime operations,” Munson said.

The Aerosonde Mark 4.7 operated by Textron Systems launches from a catapult and is recovered with a large net. It can cruise at up to 70 mph. The company in an email to The Associated Press said the system has more than 100,000 flight hours with flights in hurricanes and in the Arctic, but this is its first use on wildfires.

The “aircraft’s sensors can give responders real-time date on fire growth, burn intensity, fuels and heat concentrations,” the company said. It also said data supplied by the vehicle can be used by fire managers to look at erosion risks and impacts on wildlife and vegetation in remote areas.

Brad Koeckeritz, unmanned aircraft manager for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the tests in Idaho are one of three demonstrations being done this fire season and include two other companies. Earlier this summer, officials tested a drone made by Boeing subsidiary InSitu on a wildfire in Washington states’ Olympic National Park.

“It was very successful,” Koeckeritz said. “We were able to look through very thick smoke and assist the helicopter pilots with bucket drops and see where the drops hit.”

The article states a couple of times that the sensors on the UAS can see through clouds, but I would be very surprised if that is true. (We didn’t include those sections here.) The moisture in clouds has its own heat signature which is impenetrable to the equipment on the U.S. Forest Service infrared line scanning aircraft. The sensors can detect heat through smoke, however, as long as it is not an extremely active convection column with a great deal of particulate matter, debris, or burning embers.

The video below demonstrates how the Aerosonde UAS is used on a ship.

Aerosonde Mark 4.7 recovery
The Aerosonde Mark 4.7 is recovered at the end of the flight by flying into a net deployed from the trailer-mounted launcher. Screen grab from Aerosonde video.

More information:
Drone tested over the Paradise Fire in Olympic National Park.
Specifications of the Aerosonde Mark 4.7.
Aerosonde gets $600 million contract for contractor owned/contractor operated UAS systems

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.

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