Startup company plans to use swarms of drones to plant trees after a wildfire

The company is already using them to spray pesticides

DroneSeed drone herbicide fire reseed
A DroneSeed drone applying a herbicide. Screenshot from DroneSeed video.

Replanting trees after a wildfire or logging operation is an extremely labor intensive and expensive task. Carrying a bag of seedlings and using a dibble bar or shovel across steep debris-covered terrain can wear out a human.

A new company, DroneSeed, has a solution. Use machines. They are designing a system around a swarm of drones that can plant tree seeds in places where they have a decent chance of survival. First they survey the area with a drone using lidar and a multispectral camera to map the terrain and the vegetation. Software then identifies the areas that have invasive species or other plants the landowner wants to eliminate and then a drone applies herbicide to only the patches that need it, rather than dumping  pesticide over the entire landscape.

According to an article at TechCrunch, DroneSeed is still fine tuning the seed dispersing system, but the next step is to use artificial intelligence to sort through the mapping data to find microsites where a dropped seed is most likely to germinate.

Using a concept that has been around for a long time, they will coat the seeds with substances that will enhance its survival chances. The article explained that the company is very reticent to detail exactly what will be applied to the seed. In agriculture, seeds are often coated with polymers, fertilizers, or fungicides.  Polymers can improve the flowability and plantability — if the weather is hot and humid, cool and damp, or dry — to get consistent seed drop.

One issue DroneSeed appears to be concentrating on is deterring animals from eating or removing the seeds. They are looking at adding capsaicin, a chili pepper extract, to the coating. A fertilizer, if included, would wash off during a rain and then supply nutrients to the seed as it germinates.

The drones they are using are off the shelf aircraft that DroneSeed guts and converts into a machine that fits their missions. They are referred to as “heavy lift” drones since they weigh more than the 55-pound maximum for more conventional drones. The FAA limits heavy lifts to 115 pounds. The company says they are the first and only company the FAA has approved to use drone swarms to dispense agricultural payloads (fertilizers, herbicides, and water).

The FAA classifies this exception as “precedent setting”, referring to the exceptional lengths DroneSeed has gone to prove out its ability to scale operations to larger payloads for multiple concurrent flights.

As you can see in the video below, the drones are used in swarms, with five to six drones being able to equal the production of one helicopter when spraying herbicides.

DroneSeed has worked for three of the five largest timber companies since 2017 spraying herbicides, but they are just getting into the tree seeding game. They missed the prime planting season this year but were able to apply seeds to a few small sites and should be in a good position next year to show off their results.

Drones map the Camp Fire

The photos and videos can help residents check the status of their homes

Camp Fire drone photo
Photo taken by a drone in Paradise near Kilcrease Circle.

(This article was first published on Fire Aviation)

A large group of mapping and drone experts have photographed from the air the Paradise, California area that was devastated by the Camp Fire that roared through the communities November 8. The photos and videos shot by drones were all georeferenced and put into a map format, making it possible for residents to check the status of their homes. Drones flew above all of the major roads shooting videos, and 360-degree photos were taken from the air in 200 locations which can be panned and zoomed. The resolution is very good since they were taken with 20 megapixel cameras.

Camp Fire drone photo
Photo taken by a drone in Magalia near Indian Drive.

The maps can be viewed at the Butte County website. The site is a little glitchy and I found that it did not work well with the Chrome browser; the street names, videos, and 360-degree photos were not available. It worked fairly well with the Firefox browser, but a window on the left side could not be eliminated which obscured about half the map. I did not try it with Internet Explorer. In spite of these issues, what the group accomplished in about two days is an incredible achievement, and may be the first time the process has been used on this scale to provide such detailed information to a population suffering from a natural disaster.

To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Camp Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.

The 16 teams of drone operators conducted 500 flights in two days to collect 70,000 photos over 17,000 acres.

In addition to this resource, officials are mapping one by one the structures affected by the fire. That map is also available to residents who want to check on the status of their homes.

The video below explains the technical details of how the imagery was collected and displayed.

Bell Helicopters to build drone that can carry 1,000 pounds of cargo

Bell Helicopters Autonomous Pod Transport
Bell Helicopters’ design for an Autonomous Pod Transport. Bell photo.

Bell Helicopters intends to market a drone that can carry 1,000 pounds of cargo. Their plan is to make multiple models with various capacities, from 50 up to 1,000 pounds. The company does not call it a drone, of course. It will be an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle — specifically, an Autonomous Pod Transport (APT). Bell is working with Yamato Holding Co., Ltd. who will design the removable pod for the cargo.

Bell’s APT will utilize a tail-sitting eVTOL configuration and a payload pod. It should reach speeds of more than 100 mph and can be small enough to handle loads up to 15 pounds, or large enough to transport 1,000 pounds.

The companies say this is one way to deal with the truck driver shortage, since the “flying trucks” will increase efficiency because they won’t require conventional drivers (who are subject to hours of service regulations), they can move faster than traditional trucks, and they won’t have to deal with traffic.

They expect to produce the first prototype in August of 2019.

The Bureau of Land Management is moving quickly in their adoption of drones for surveillance and mapping, but so far the small machines have not been capable of transporting firefighting supplies or equipment.

Picture this. It is midnight. A couple of Hot Shot crews on extended attack in a remote area would like to conduct a firing operation on a slope leading down to a creek. A hose lay would increase their chances of success, and there’s water in the creek. Helicopters can’t haul cargo at night, so they request a call when needed Bell APT sitting at the helibase with 100-pound cargo capacity to bring in a small pump and two Gasner hose packs with nozzles, gated wyes, and a total of 400 feet of hose. That is enough to get the crews started installing the pump and the hose lay. The APT makes additional sorties as needed, bringing three Gasner packs and pump fuel on the second load. It might even bring in some food and drinking water if the crews have not eaten in the last 12 hours. Or fuel for chain saws and drip torches.

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

Another proposal for unmanned air tanker

In 2009 we first started hearing about concepts for unmanned air tankers when John A. Hoffman applied for a patent for UAVs that would be transported by a mother ship and released near the fire. They would fly to the fire and drop retardant, and then intentionally crash, or in another variant, fly to an airport and land.

In 2013 Nitrofirex developed the idea further by producing a video. Their UAVs would also 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.

But we have not heard of anything real being built or flown.

Next up: Faradair. They have advanced the concept of an unmanned air tanker by producing a photoshopped image of a tri-wing UAV dropping water on a vegetation fire (at the top of this article). The website says it would carry up to 2,200 gallons and would have a hybrid propulsion system, electric and an internal combustion engine. This would be a variant of a model they are considering that is intended to carry six to 10 passengers in a quiet aircraft with short takeoff and landing capability.

Faradair UAV air tanker
Concept aircraft by Faradair.

Faradair’s main goal apparently is to produce an inexpensive small passenger aircraft for commuters or quick flights that could takeoff and land from short runways and be quiet enough to operate in areas with noise restrictions — hence, the electric motor option. It would takeoff with the electric motor then switch to the internal combustion engine. The air tanker variant is derived from the goal of the basic design to be multi-role.

Here is an excerpt from their website:


“To date, former WWII era bombers and converted civilian jets have been used to deliver large scale firefighting capability, but that scale increases costs and pilot risk. The 11 meter wingspan BEHA M1-AT with a 10 tonne payload capability offers the operator an opportunity to acquire a fleet of aircraft, for a fraction of the acquisition and operational costs of helicopters, flying in rotation to combat the smaller fires and to prevent them becoming larger fires.

“The aircraft’s unique ‘triple box-wing’ configuration allows extremely short take-off and landing capability whilst also allowing the aircraft to lift large payloads with hybrid flight capability if required. BEHA can operate from any surface, in confined spaces with protection of the propeller in the rear duct, lessening the risk of Foreign Object Damage (FOD) during payload delivery runs. The all carbon composite airframe is lightweight and extremely strong, allowing for larger payloads to be carried, making it perfect for anti-fire operations.

“ ‘We have always said that our new BEHA aircraft platform is focused more on multi-role functionality than specific focus in one class of flight (Urban Air Mobility) and this firefighting drone configuration really highlights that capability. Obviously the ability to carry retardant also opens the opportunity for refuelling in the military environment, possibly negating the need for resupply fuel tracks or even low cost air to air refuelling option for the F35B from carriers without ‘cats n traps’. It is a genuinely exciting aircraft and we are now tweaking the design of the airframe to ensure the most volume can be achieved from the payload capability’, Managing Director of Faradair® Neil Cloughley said.”

Drone damaged during landing after surveilling fire

On August 7, 2018 while attempting a landing at the end of a mission on the Graves Fire in Oregon, an Insitu ScanEagle X200 unmanned aircraft came in too low resulting in a low capture on the suspended rope. The payload and the left wing sustained visible damage.

According to the preliminary report, the flight crew believes the failure of the aircraft to correct the errant glide path was caused by turbulence generated by terrain at the recovery site.

After the incident the ground control software was upgraded to improve the glide path tracking. In addition, the site lead reemphasized the decision making process for initiating a timely go-around.

An article by Gareth Corfield in The Register describes how a newer model of the aircraft, an Insitu ScanEagle3, is recovered after a mission:

“Insitu craft are recovered from the air by the simple process of commanding them to fly at a rope suspended from a crane-type contraption fitted with a hydraulic damper system;

Insitu drone capture system
Photo by Insitu on Instagram of the recovery system as used on the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge in September, 2017.

the aircraft’s swept wings are both fitted with titanium carabiners at their tips that grip the rope tightly, suspending the Scaneagle in mid-air until the ground crew lowers it. An onboard accelerometer senses the violent yaw when the wing is caught by the rope (the aircraft cartwheels sideways when it hits) and cuts the engine. The process was described as “very dynamic” by Insitu personnel, an assessment El Reg agreed with.

“The unmanned aircraft flies itself autonomously to the point where it returns back to its Skyhook (Insitu’s trade name for the crane-rope capture affair) using differential GPS with the ground beacon being placed under the rope. All human involvement is limited to pressing the required buttons to start the landing sequence and getting the UAV off the rope afterwards. Though the craft can be flown on barometric altitude (as manned aircraft typically use), it is launched and recovered on GPS altitude. We were told that the UAV is programmed to approach the rope at a height of 33 feet with a two-foot lateral offset to increase the chances of a wing meeting the rope rather than the nose.”

Night-flying drone detects spot fire unknown to firefighters

The pilot was able to direct personnel to the location

Above: Screenshot from the Department of the Interior video below.

(Originally published at 3:45 p.m. MDT August 15, 2018)

In 2010 I wrote an article on Wildfire Today about the two military surplus Cobra helicopters the U.S. Forest Service operates. The ships are still with the agency and are used on fires when the electronic systems are working.

These “Firewatch Cobras” have infrared sensors that can detect heat from fires. There is video in the article in which the pilot directs firefighters on the ground to a hot spot near the line on the Jesusita fire near Santa Barbara on May 12, 2009. The heat source is so small that the firefighters walked past it and over it several times, but the pilot could easily see it using the infrared equipment.

That video was filmed during daylight hours. Eight years later we now have the ability to have an unmanned aerial vehicle with sophisticated sensors orbit continuously over a fire, day and night, for 18 to 20 hours depending on the weight of its payload. If an incident management team on a fire activates a couple of these using the recently awarded Call When Needed contract, firefighters can have greatly enhanced situational awareness with near real time video.

Insitu was one of four companies that won CWN contracts in May. On the Taylor Fire in southwest Oregon on August 5, firefighters requested that the company’s ScanEagle aircraft monitor an overnight burn operation they were conducting along a ridge top road. As it orbited in the darkness at 8,500 feet, the sensors and the pilot detected a spot fire about 100 feet outside the fireline in the “green” unburned area.

The pilot talked directly with firefighters in an engine, telling them where it was.

Engine 66 stop there, spot fire is out your passenger door, 100 feet.

As you can see in the video below, the firefighters, it looked like at least three of them, searched the area and found the spot fire, which they said was about one foot square.

Depending on your taste in music, you will either want to turn up the sound in the video, or turn it off. I doubt if there’s any middle ground. There is no narration, so you won’t miss anything with the sound off.


The ScanEagle was launched from and recovered within the Temporary Flight Restriction over the fire. It was flown beyond visual line of sight in accordance with the 2015 FAA/Department of the Interior Memorandum of Understanding.

This is not the first time a drone has detected a spot fire during conditions when most aircraft are unable to fly. In 2017 on the Umpqua North Fire Complex in Southern Oregon a drone found a spot fire when smoke reduced the visibility to only 100 feet, keeping all other aircraft on the ground.

We have often written about the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing in real time the location of the fire and the location of personnel. Many assumed the location of the fire would be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. But apparently the technology, suitable and practical enough to be used on a wildfire, is on a CWN contract.  BOOM!

The location of firefighters can also be solved. The technology exists now. Many agencies are using various systems, especially metropolitan law enforcement and fire organizations, but the federal land management agencies and most of the larger state fire organizations are dragging their feet. Earlier this year CAL FIRE took a step in the right direction when they issued a contract to provide technology in 1,200 state-owned vehicles that will facilitate mission critical data communications over a variety of networks (broadband, narrowband and satellite). This will include tracking the location of firefighting vehicles, but probably not dismounted personnel.

Complex terrain is one of the difficulties in continuously tracking the location of resources on a wildland fire, but there are ways to get around this, including putting radio repeaters in drones, perhaps the same one that is tracking the fire.

One of these days, drones will be on automatic dispatch along with engines, crews, and other aircraft. I know — a lot of deconflicting of aircraft has to be worked out, but it WILL happen.

Insitu UAS map fires
Insitu ScanEagle. Insitu photo.
Insitu UAS map fires
Insitu ScanEagle. Insitu photo.

 

National Guard uses MQ-9 Reaper drone to improve firefighters’ situational awareness

Above: An aircrew from the 163d Attack Wing, California Air National Guard, fly an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft to the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California, Aug. 4, 2018, during a mission to support state agencies. The aircrew conducted fire perimeter scans and spot checks on the blaze, which encompasses the Ranch and River fires and continues to grow. (Photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

By Senior Airman Crystal Housman | California National Guard | Aug. 7, 2018

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. — Five years after a proof-of-concept mission, the MQ-9 Reaper drone has developed into a key asset in California’s fight against wildfires, including the Carr and Mendocino Complex Fires, which are currently burning in Northern California.

“It’s a technology I never thought I’d see,” said Jeremy Salizzoni, a fire technical specialist with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who was embedded with the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California, during 2013’s devastating Rim Fire.

More than 250,000 acres burned in August 2013 as the Rim Fire raged in Tuolumne County, California. At the time, it was the state’s third largest wildfire on record. More than 100 structures were lost in the blaze, which took nine weeks to fully contain.

Game-changing technology

Eleven days after the Rim Fire started, the wing launched a first-of-its kind mission to overfly the fire with an MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted reconnaissance aircraft and beam back real-time video footage of the fire to Salizzoni and wing intelligence analysts working in an operations facility at March.

Through the Predator’s footage, Salizzoni, who was used to driving for hours through rugged terrain to access overlook points and put eyes on the leading edge of a fire, could see any area of the fire he wanted, in real time and without ever leaving the operations facility.

The remotely piloted aircraft’s thermal imaging camera provided a view of the fire unlike anything he’d ever seen. Traditional aerial assets are important, but encounter limitations due to smoke, fuel, altitude and field of view, he said.

“It was such a dramatic change from anything I’d seen in my career,” Salizzoni said.”It was like being blind and then having vision in the blink of an eye.”

He and his colleagues knew they had a new tool in their firefighting toolbox.

“We saw things over the course of that fire that you couldn’t have made up,” Salizzoni said.”I don’t think there’s a better intel resource at our disposal right now.”

During its eight-day emergency activation for the Rim Fire, the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing – the unit’s name at the time – logged more than 150 hours of fire support and was credited with helping firefighters expedite containment.

Domestic response

In the five years since, the 163rd Attack Wing has changed its name and the kind of airplane it flies, but one thing hasn’t changed: the wing’s dedication to domestic disaster response missions right here at home.

RPAs are no longer just trying to prove their worth, said Air Force Maj. Mike Baird, the senior intelligence officer at the 163rd Attack Wing. The wing’s MQ-9 Reaper RPAs – a big-brother to the recently retired Predators – are an in-demand incident awareness and assessment asset preferred by California’s civil authorities when disaster strikes.

The wing has supported more than 20 wildfires since 2013, but it takes more than just airplanes, Baird said. Keeping California safe takes a wing-wide effort.

“What we’ve been doing behind the scenes from maintenance and communications to refining our deployment and personnel processes has led up to our ability to provide an unprecedented level of MQ-9 support,” Baird said.

The wing provided real-time full motion video support over a number of fires in 2017, including California’s most destructive fire on record and also its largest fire to date. More than 5,600 structures were damaged and 22 lives were lost during the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County in October. Two months later, in December, the Thomas Fire ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara counties to become the state’s largest fire on record with more than 280,000 acres burned.

Innovation on the fly

The wing works to refine its techniques and procedures, and works to expand the detailed real-time incident awareness and assessment data it provides to incident commanders. Innovation on the fly is the name of the game.

An investment by James G. Clark, director of Air Force innovation, and Air Force Col. Chris McDonald from the disruptive innovation division in Clark’s office, helped the wing’s Hap Arnold Innovation Center develop a specialized network to push and pull data from RPAs and other data-generating assets from civilian and military organizations.

The network’s customizable data sets – coupled with the RPAs’ real-time thermal imagery – provide incident commanders and first responders a common operating picture they can access from anywhere, anytime.

RPAs proved “an opportunity for people to make tactical and objective based decisions on real time information,” Salizzoni said.

As the Rim Fire nears its fifth anniversary, RPAs are once again in the sky, flying through smoke to deliver data and protect Californians as wildfires ravage the state.

By July 31, the 163rd was on its fifth fire of the summer.

Throughout July, the wing flew nearly 350 hours to support civil authorities working the County, Klamathon, Ferguson, Carr, Mendocino Complex and Eel fires, and is credited with helping to protect thousands of structures in the process. The MQ-9 provided near real-time full motion video and frequent fire-line updates to decision makers determining where to build up future containment lines.

It’s a marathon pace, but the wing’s Airmen up for it, said Air Force 1st Lt. Frank Cruz, officer in charge of the 163rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, whose unit provides direct support for the MQ-9’s around-the-clock fire operations to aid civil authorities.

“Everyone is 100 percent on board,” Cruz said.”They’re all in.”

Drone used to ignite burnout operations on Klondike Fire in Oregon

drone ignite prescribed fire
File photo of drone being used for the first time to ignite a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument, April 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

April 22, 2016 was the first time that a drone, or Unmanned Aerial System, was used to intentionally ignite a managed fire. The University of Nebraska tested a system that had been under development, using it to ignite a portion of a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice, Nebraska. As a proof of concept, it was considered a success. The drone dropped plastic spheres which burst into flame about half a minute after landing on the ground, similar to the ones dropped by helicopters for aerial ignition on large wildfires and prescribed fires.

Using the technology developed by the University of Nebraska, drones are being used to help firefighters conduct firing operations on the Klondike Fire about 25 miles southwest of Grants Pass, Oregon.

Daily updates released by the incident management team between August 8 and 13, 2018 documented the use of the drones for lighting strategic fires to even out and increase the depth of burned areas adjacent to fire lines in difficult terrain where firefighter safety could be compromised. Firefighters say drone technology  used on the Klondike Fire has enabled aerial observation and firing operations to continue during smoky conditions, which aids fire containment and completion of contingency lines.

The video below from the Mail Tribune has an interview with Steve Stroud, fleet manager with the Office of Aviation Services, explaining how the aircraft is used. An article at the site has more information.

The next video was filmed in 2016 at the first test of a drone to ignite a prescribed fire.

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

drone nebraska ignite prescribed fire
File photo of the drone used at the 2016 test at Homestead National Monument. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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