NWCG standards for unmanned aircraft operations

NWCG unmanned aircraft standards

Early this year the National Wildfire Coordinating Group published their standards for operating unmanned aircraft on fires.

Here is how they describe the 24-page document:

The “NWCG Standards for Fire Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations” standardizes the processes and procedures for interagency use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), including pilot inspections and approvals. In support of fire management goals and objectives, the aviation community references these standards to utilize UAS in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. These standards further serve as a risk assessment for fire UAS operations and meet federal requirements for aviation safety and operational planning pertaining to recurring aviation missions. Agency level policy and guidance is provided through established federal or state plans and processes.

If you have not seen it, you can download a copy.

Former Tesla engineer developing drone with larger payload capacity that could be used on fires

Joshua Resnick Tesla Parallel Flight Technologies
Joshua Resnick was the lead electrical engineer who helped design the Tesla all-electric battery-powered semi-trailer truck. Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

The lead electrical engineer that helped design the Tesla all-electric battery-powered semi-trailer truck is one of the three people that have created a company that is developing an unmanned aircraft system, or drone, that could be used on fires, as well as other functions. Joshua Resnick, the CEO of a new company, Parallel Flight Technologies, said he worked on the Tesla semi project from the time it was first drawn up on a napkin through its introduction to the public in 2017.

Parallel Flight Technologies is building a drone with a much longer endurance and a larger payload capacity than those currently being used on wildfires. Most drones can only stay aloft for 20 to 30 minutes and can carry a few pounds of cargo — less if they are transporting more. Parallel Flight Technologies expects their aircraft to be able to transport 75 of pounds for one hour, or 50 pounds and stay airborne for 2.5 hours.

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

On any aircraft the power to weight ratio is critical. Eliminate weight or add power and it can travel longer and farther. The primary limiting factor in electric-powered aircraft is the weight of the batteries. Until there is a huge leap in battery technology we’ll be unlikely to see them powering aircraft with more than 50 pounds of cargo while staying aloft for more than 15 minutes.

So we need new, or at least, different technology if we hope to see a drone carrying a portable pump, fire hose, and fuel to a remote site on a wildland fire.

“We are building a new drone technology and it can be used for a lot of different things, but wildfire would really be the use case that was the impetus for me to even start on this project,” Mr. Resnick said. “We had a fire not far from our home in Santa Cruz, California in 2017 either right before or right after the Santa Rosa Fire, and it was after that that I started looking into the different ways that unmanned systems could be used in a wildfire effort. That’s when I started understanding that using unmanned systems to resupply firefighters could be very useful especially when manned aircraft could not fly due to smoke inversions or nighttime.”

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

Hybrid systems, using a gas engine to drive a generator which powered electric motors to spin the propellers, have been tried before, but it was not much more than strapping a generator to a drone which added too much mass and weight to be practical. Also, the many power conversion steps led to a loss of efficiency.

“We have developed a parallel hybrid drone,” Mr. Resnick said, “where the propellers are powered by a combination of gas and electric. The electric motors provide the responsiveness so the aircraft can maneuver and the gas supplies the duration and the high power to weight ratio.”

The aircraft is powered by four hybrid power modules, each with a gas-electric combination. The 2-cycle gas engines work in combination with the electric motors, which provide very high peak thrust as well as redundancy. Larger aircraft in the pipeline could be powered by other fuels, such as diesel or jet fuel.

In fall of 2018 the company built a proof of concept aircraft, and in August, 2019 successfully demonstrated heavy lift capability and duration with a new prototype aircraft. In 2020 they expect to be ready for joint exercise missions with several agencies interested in the aircraft.

“I want to find ways to integrate this new technology with the existing solution,” Mr. Resnick said. “I don’t see it as a replacement for helicopters, we’re talking about a much smaller payload. I’m seeing, for example, smoke inversions where helicopters are grounded at nighttime or early dawn before manned aircraft are flying, to be able to operate our drones to do some of this work, while finding ways to deconflict the airspace between drones and manned aircraft.”

I noticed that in photos of the prototype the props appear to be made of wood. When I asked Mr. Resnick if that really was the case, he yes, the props on the prototype are wood due to the cost. If a prop was damaged during testing, they would be out about $100. If made of carbon fiber, such as might be used on the production version, the cost would be about ten times higher.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has leaped into the use of drones in the last few years and currently has over 800 unmanned aircraft. In 2018 they flew over 10,000 drone missions. Parallel Flight Technologies is consulting with personnel in the DOI who have experience in establishing and operating a drone program.

The DOI was recently in the news when their entire drone fleet was grounded except for those needed for firefighting and other emergency services. It turns out that all of the DOI drones are either entirely made by a Chinese company, DJI, or have chips or other parts that are manufactured in China. The Wall Street Journal reported that “the Department of Homeland Security was concerned about drones’ capacity to observe and transmit prohibited infrastructure surveillance and conduct cyberattacks.” Mr. Resnick said the Parallel Flight Technologies drones will be American made and will conform to security specifications required by the DOI and Department of Homeland Security.

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

Mr. Resnick said they are working closely with Drone Amplified who they hope can build a larger drone-mounted plastic sphere dispenser (PSD) system for Parallel Flight Technologies’ upsized drones so that they can be used to ignite burnouts or prescribed fires. Drone Amplified recently introduced a PSD, Ignis 2.0, that can hold 400 to 450 spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being released from the drone. Their previous system, Ignis 1.0, carried 150 spheres.

Parallel Flight Technologies is raising funds through an equity crowd funding effort which is open to the public for anyone to invest in the company.

Parallel plans on selling a small number of initial aircraft in late 2020 to its first customers before full production begins in 2021.

DOI grounds their entire fleet of drones

More than 800 drones will be parked except when used on fires

Matrisse Drone Springs Fire aerial ignition
Technicians attend to a Matrisse 600 drone which in August, 2019 was being used for aerial ignition on the Springs Fire on the Inyo National Forest in California. Photo: incident management team.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has grounded its entire fleet of more than 800 drones due to concerns about Chinese spying and cyber security. All of the drones have some components manufactured in China and 121 were made by the Chinese company DJI, one of the largest drone companies in the world.

Drones used for firefighting and other emergency services may continue to be used by the DOI.

This was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Below are excerpts from an article at CNET:

…The fleet will remain grounded until a full review is completed by Secretary David Bernhardt, the department said Thursday. However, drones being used for emergency rescues and disasters will remain in flight.

The move, earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal, highlights US-Chinese trade tensions, which have escalated since the blacklisting of Chinese tech giant Huawei by the US government in May. The DOI’s decision also follows a May warning from the Department of Homeland Security about data security issues involving the use of Chinese-made drones, particularly those made by DJI. DHS said it was concerned about drones’ capacity to observe and transmit prohibited infrastructure surveillance and conduct cyberattacks…

In the last few years small drones have been increasingly common in the skies over fires led by an aggressive adoption of the concept by the DOI. Incident Commanders have used them for enhancing situational awareness, looking for spot fires, mapping perimeters, search and rescue, and as an aerial ignition platform for conducting burnouts and prescribed fires.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Rugby coach becomes firefighting drone coach

drone coach
Screenshot from the Boise State video below.

After 20 years on the frontline fighting wildfires across the nation, Boise State alumnus and men’s rugby coach Matt Dutton was ready for a change. In 2014, Dutton and his family moved to Boise and he took a job in training and development with the National Interagency Fire Center, recruiting and teaching firefighters to become drone pilots in the center’s unmanned aerial systems (UAS) program.

New drone attachment holds almost triple the number of aerial ignition spheres

Ignis 2 drone aerial ignition
The recently developed Ignis Version 2.0 aerial ignition system. Photo by Drone Amplified.

The company that developed an aerial ignition system that can be carried by a drone has introduced an improved model that can hold almost three times the number of plastic spheres.

The Ignis 2.0 made by Drone Amplified can be loaded with 400 to 450 spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being released from the drone. Their previous system, Ignis 1.0, carried 150 spheres. The new design is easier to maintain and can drop the spheres at up to four times the rate if desired, an increase from 30 to 120 spheres per minute. By using an Android app, the user can configure ignition spacing, number of ignition spheres, mission duration, and altitude.

Ignis Version 2.0
Android application to program ignition within geofence and monitor progress. Photo by Drone Amplified.

Firefighters have employed the concept of using machines for aerial ignition for 40 to 50 years starting with an aerial drip torch suspended below a helicopter and later advancing to equipment installed in the open door of a helicopter.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
Dennis Kirkley of Kaibab Helitack loads the plastic sphere dispenser (ping pong ball machine) with plastic spheres. Grand Canyon Helitack’s A-Star was used to do aerial ignition on the Sitgreaves Complex in northern Arizona August 8, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

Just before they are released, the spheres, which contain a chemical, are injected with a second chemical that causes them to ignite 30 to 45 seconds later. Aerial ignition allows prescribed fires or firing operations on wildfires to be ignited in areas that can be difficult for firefighters on the ground to reach safely, reducing their exposure to hazards. It can also ignite controlled burns more quickly than it can be done by personnel on foot, and at less cost than a helicopter.

reload drone plastic spheres aerial ignition
Fire personnel on the Maroon Fire on the Coconino National Forest reload a drone with plastic spheres used for aerial ignition, June 1, 2019. USFS photo.

The Department of the Interior began experimenting with drones for aerial ignition in 2017 and in 2018 began using a much larger aircraft, the Matrisse 600 that can carry up to 13 pounds. In August it was used to ignite a firing operation at night on the Inyo National Forest on the Springs Fire 13 miles southeast of Lee Vining, California.

According to Drone Amplified, the DOI just finished testing the new Ignis 2.0 in Arizona and ordered 20 for immediate delivery.

The Chief Engineer for Drone Amplified, Jim Higgins, was a mechanical engineering graduate student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln when he and others built the first drone to be used to ignite a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice, Nebraska. Drone Amplified is based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Firefighters use drone to ignite nighttime firing operations

The use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones, by wildland firefighters has come a long way since one was first used in in 2016 to ignite a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument near Beatrice, Nebraska. That drone, developed by staff from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, could easily be held in one hand and could carry about a dozen plastic spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being dropped by the aircraft.

In 2018 the Bureau of Land Management began testing a much larger drone to serve as an aerial ignition platform, the Matrisse 600 that can carry up to 13 pounds. In case you’re curious, you can buy one yourself — prices start at around $5,000 before you begin adding a gimbal, camera, and other accessories.

Matrisse Drone Springs Fire aerial ignition
Technicians attend to a Matrisse 600 drone which is being used for aerial ignition on the Springs Fire. Photo: incident management team.

In June, 2019 a Matrisse was used for aerial ignition on the Maroon Fire 18 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. Currently a similar aircraft has been used for the last two nights for firing operations on the Inyo National Forest on the Springs Fire 13 miles southeast of Lee Vining, California. So far the aircraft has been used to ignite approximately 20 to 40 acres in some of the northern units of the fire and the plan is to ignite more  as early as tonight, as conditions allow.

Kerry Greene, an Information Officer for the Springs Fire, said the advantages of using the UAS platform over hand firing in this case are, precision of application, protection of cultural sites, reduction of risk and exposure to firefighters, and minimizing firefighter fatigue.

drone aerial ignition wildfire
This type of drone was used for aerial ignition in Southwest Oregon in 2018, and on the Maroon Fire on the Coconino National Forest June 1, 2019. USFS photo.

Drone shuts down helicopter drops on Williams Flats Fire, operator found

Williams Flats Fire drone
File photo of a law enforcement officer patrolling the waters in the Columbia River adjacent to the Williams Flats Fire, August 10, 2019. InciWeb.

On August 6, 2019 a hobbyist drone temporarily shut down helicopter water drops on the Williams Flats Fire in northeast Washington. After the incursion was reported by a Safety Officer, the Air Tactical Group Supervisor diverted a large Type 1 helicopter that was en route from the helibase until the air space could be cleared.

A law enforcement officer patrolling the adjacent Columbia River discovered the drone was operated by a person on a houseboat. After discussing the dangers of flying a drone over a fire and the potential fine associated with it, the officer decided not to ticket the operator.

Lockheed drone crashes while mapping fires in New Mexico

Lockheed XE Stalker
Lockheed XE Stalker on a catapult. Lockheed image.

A Lockheed Stalker XE Unmanned Aerial System aircraft crashed as it was attempting to land after completing a mission to detect heat and map the perimeters of wildfires in southwest New Mexico.

It occurred August 7, 2019 about 26 miles west-northwest of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

The cause, according to a brief preliminary report, was an incorrect altitude of the landing area obtained from “a new GPS out of the box.”

Below is an excerpt from the report about the accident:

“The Type 2 UAS was ordered for a number of fires in and around the XXX Wilderness on the XXX of the XXX National Forest. The mission was to detect any heat remaining on the fires, map their perimeters, and provide imagery to local fire managers. The day before the mishap, a flight was conducted on a fire that went smoothly. On the second day, a similar mission was planned over a different fire. A thorough safety and operational briefing took place prior to launch with all members of the mission. The only difference in this mission and the previous day’s was the location of the fire and the placement of the launch area. The UAS flew over the fire for just over an hour collecting data before the Pilot in Charge (PIC) began the procedures for landing.

“On final and while flying on an automated flight plan, the UAS aggressively changed its angle of attack and pitched down. The UAS impacted the ground at this angle one-quarter of a mile from the intended landing zone. The fuselage, leading edges of the wings, and tail boom all sustained significant damage leading to the aircraft being deemed not airworthy. The angle of attack change is normal for this aircraft on approach to its landing zone.

“The crash was due to an incorrect input into the Ground Control Station (GCS) of the landing zone elevation. This elevation was gained from a new GPS out of the box. The input into the GCS was 5915 and the actual elevation of the landing zone is 6280. This incorrect input made the aircraft believe that it was over 300 feet higher and continue with this angle of attack prior to leveling off for landing.”

The Lockheed XE was first introduced in 2006. The latest models can fly up to eight hours with a propane fuel cell or up to four hours with a battery option at a cruise speed of 35 mph. It can be launched with a bungee cord, a catapult, or by using a recently developed optional vertical takeoff and landing kit.

In 2015 Lockheed demonstrated how the Stalker XE can provide data and a precise geolocation to an unmanned K-MAX cargo helicopter, which conducted water drops to slow the spread of a fire.