Above: File photo of a Silent Falcon drone poised for launch. Image credit: Silent Falcon UAS Technologies.
(Originally published at 6:48 p.m. MDT July 13, 2018)
The Department of the Interior continues to aggressively move toward the use of drones to provide information for land managers. The agency is purchasing dozens of them and recently issued Call When Needed (CWN) contracts for contractor operated and maintained drones to be used on fires.
On July 11 the Bureau of Land Management activated one of the new CWN drones to map the HUGE Martin Fire that has burned 435,000 acres in Northern Nevada. The company that got the call was Bridger Aerospace, an outfit that also had nine Aero Commanders under contract for Type 1 Air Attack services, used as a platform for coordinating airborne firefighting aircraft. Drones, for Bridger, is a new field, and they have partnered with Silent Falcon UAS Technologies for the use of their Silent Falcon drone.
During its first day on the fire, today, July 13, it has conducted four sorties for a total of 5.6 hours, according to Gill Dustin, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Manager for the BLM. The aircraft is being used to map unburned islands inside the perimeter, look for remaining heat on the fire and outside the fireline, and identify structures and other infrastructure to determine if they have been damaged or not. The company brought four aircraft to the fire, but so far are only using one at a time.
The BLM has secured from the FAA an Emergency Course of Action (ECOA) to enable the aircraft to operate within the Temporary Flight Restriction. Kurt Friedemann, Vice President of Bridger Aerospace, said that on the Martin Fire it has been flying at 8,000 feet, which in that area is about 3,000 feet above the ground.
The Silent Falcon is powered by an electric motor drawing its power from a battery. But there are also solar panels on the wings which can add a small amount of additional power to the battery while in flight. With the fuselage made of carbon fiber, it is quite light and energy efficient. Mr. Friedemann said that occasionally the aircraft can take advantage of thermals, like a glider, to extend the amount of time it can loiter over a target. Normally they expect to get at least 5 hours of flight time out of the aircraft. It is launched on a spring-loaded catapult, and has no landing gear. It lands via parachute — upside down to protect the payload. The entire system can be transported in a pickup truck.
The payload can be changed to meet the needs of the end user, but for this mission it has electro-optical and infrared sensors.
On the Martin fire, which is almost 60 miles long east to west, the Silent Falcon is operating out of line of sight, which puts it into a different certification category than your typical consumer drone.
To integrate the drone into the management of the incident there are two critical positions that are filled by the incident — an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Manager and a Data Specialist. The manager helps to integrate the system into the Incident Management Team structure. A drone, especially while live-streaming video, can generate a crap-ton of data. Managing that can be problematic if it’s not figured out in advance and carefully curated as it is collected.
Mr. Friedemann said that just 10 days ago they completed 7 days of training for personnel and carding for the aircraft in West Wendover, Nevada. And now they have their flight crew spiked out miles from the Incident Command Post in one of the most sparsely populated areas of the United States.
Yesterday, the “Silent Falcon”, an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) launched for the first time over a wildfire. The UAS will be used for more detailed mapping of the #MartinFire, as well as evaluation of the resources and perimeter. For more information: https://t.co/tDl4ySYnob pic.twitter.com/7hCvQpyqGs
— Bureau of Land Management- Nevada (@blmnv) July 14, 2018