Drones have been used on the Sawtooth Fire in Arizona

Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) module drone Sawtooth Fire
An Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) module on the Sawtooth Fire, June 3, 2020. InciWeb photo.

One of the aerial support tools firefighters have been using for a variety of tasks on the Sawtooth Fire 10 miles east of Apache Junction, Arizona are Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS or drones). UAS are gathering images and video and patrolling areas inaccessible to firefighters or larger aircraft. While this technology does not replace the need for large aircraft and helicopters, it does lower the risk to fire crews both in the air and on the ground. The UAS Operators are trained, qualified, and have constant communication with other fire aircraft.

Parallel Flight Technology’s next drone model will be able to carry 100 pounds for hours

Parallel Flight Technologies drone fires wildfires transport supplies
Joshua Resnick, the CEO of Parallel Flight Technologies, describes in a video how their drones can carry chainsaws and other equipment for wildland firefighters. Image from Santa Cruz Tech Beat video.

The first experimental drone that Parallel Flight Technology (PFT) developed can transport 75 of pounds for one hour, 50 pounds for 2.7 hours, or 10 pounds for 6.4 hours. They are currently designing what they call a beta level aircraft that can haul 100 pounds for hours.

“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,” Joshua Resnick, the CEO of PFT told us in November. “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.”

Mr. Resnick, formerly the lead electrical engineer that helped design the Tesla all-electric battery-powered semi-trailer truck, is one of the three people that created PFT.

Instead of relying on batteries to drive the new drone’s propellers, 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 PFT’s pipeline could be powered by other fuels, such as diesel or jet fuel.

In the video below Mr. Resnick begins talking about how it could be used on fires at 4:35.

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Parallel Flight Technologies photo.

DOI makes it official — most of its drones are grounded

Drones used for emergencies are exempted — for now

drones Oregon mapping aerial ignition wildfires
A drone used in 2018 on the Taylor Creek and Klondike Fires in southwest Oregon.

The Secretary of the Interior has signed an order that effectively grounds drones used by the department’s personnel except aircraft used for emergency incidents. The official action signed January 29 by Secretary David Bernhardt confirms the grounding first reported by the Wall Street Journal in October, 2019. The order calls it a “…temporary cessation of non-emergency drones while we ensure that cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed.”

In May of last year the Department of Homeland Security warned “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,” CNET reported.

The DOI has approximately 800 drones, many of which have some components manufactured in China, and 121 were made by DJI, one of the largest drone companies in the world.

In a statement following the announcement by the DOI, drone manufacturer DJI said they were “extremely disappointed” in the DOI’s “politically-motivated” decision. The statement further said:

DJI makes some of the industry’s most safe, secure, and trusted drone platforms for commercial operators. The security of our products designed specifically for the DOI and other U.S. government agencies have been independently tested and validated by U.S. cybersecurity consultants, U.S. federal agencies including the Department of Interior and the Department of Homeland Security, which proves today’s decision has nothing to do with security.

And from NPR:

…DJI makes special “government edition” versions of two of its drones specifically for the Interior Department: the Matrice 600 Pro and Mavic Pro. Both models are listed as being in the U.S. agency’s drone fleet.

The Chinese company announced last summer that the Interior Department had independently validated its “high-security” drones during a 15-month testing period. The department seemed to agree, releasing a 53-page report in July recommending it use the special DJI drones.

The aircraft include firmware and software that is tailored to meet the agency’s requirements, DJI said.

But in Bernhardt’s order, he noted that the president had signed a memorandum in June stating, “I hereby determine … the domestic production capability for small unmanned aerial systems is essential to the national defense.

Presumably drone manufacturers in the United States will bend over backwards to ensure that their systems have no components made in China.

Joshua Resnick, the CEO of a new company, Parallel Flight Technologies, that is building a heavy-duty drone initially targeted for use on wildland fires, told us in November that their drones will be American made and will conform to security specifications required by the DOI and Department of Homeland Security.

Parallel Flight Technologies drone
Prototype drone designed by Parallel Flight Technologies. PFT photo.

Two bills before Congress would restrict the procurement of drones. H.R. 4753 would prevent the U.S. from purchasing any drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) from a nation identified as a national security threat. That would include China and Iran.

S. 2502 would require that no Federal department or agency may operate a commercial off-the-shelf drone or covered UAS manufactured or assembled by a covered foreign entity.

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

Erickson is working on a “pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution”

The company also announced improvements to the Air Crane

Erickson S64F+
Erickson image

Erickson, the manufacturer and operator of the S-64 Air Crane helicopter, has announced a new venture with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company. They intend to develop a new “pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution”, integrating Sikorsky’s MATRIX™ Technology into a digitally enabled fire management system never-before used in night firefighting. Erickson said it will enhance cockpit awareness and flight crew safety during day and night operations.

We have asked Erickson for more information, but it sounds like it could operate with or without a pilot on board, in other words, remotely piloted or autonomous.

Sikorsky’s description of MATRIX:

Systems intelligence that will give operators the confidence to fly their large rotorcraft safely, reliably and affordably as autonomous or optionally piloted aircraft.

Air Cranes, which are sometimes referred to as helitankers, can carry up to 2,650 gallons of water.

A new Air Crane model

Erickson also announced a new production line of the legacy Air Crane helicopter, introducing the S-64F+.

The upgraded model will include composite main rotor blades, an enhanced cockpit and flight control system, an improved water cannon, and what the company calls a modern engine enhancing range and fuel efficiency.

New mission for Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft

Monday night it was investigating the drone activity that has been observed in Colorado and other states

Drone Swarms
CBS News

One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-Mission Aircraft”, primarily used for detecting and mapping wildfires, took on a new mission January 6.  Its new job that night was related to the swarms of drones that have been seen in recent weeks over Colorado and Nebraska.

There are reports that up to 30 drones at a time have been flying in sparsely populated areas of the two states. A number of agencies are trying to figure out what the drones are doing, including the FBI, FAA, Air Force, and the Army. Authorities are looking for a closed box trailer or a large van with antennas that could be used as a command vehicle.

The operators of the drones may not have broken any laws, but the very unusual aviation activity has generated many questions.

PC-12 multimission durango airport
Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 multimission aircraft, and Durango airport’s Oshkosh crash rescue truck. Photo by Rick Freimuth May 31, 2019.

The PC-12 spent almost five hours Monday night flying at 14,750-feet in an irregular pattern northeast of Denver. According to Fox News in Denver, “The joint operation found no verification of suspicious drones,” said Caley Fisher, a spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

On January 9 the Colorado Department of Public Safety released a statement about the PC-12 mission. Here is an excerpt:

On Monday, January 6, 2020, the MMA flew for 4.8 hours in northeast Colorado, communicating with law enforcement vehicles on the ground.

As calls came in reporting potential suspicious drone activity, the MMA was prepared to identify which ground resource was closest to the sighting in order to deploy that vehicle in search of more information. The aircraft typically flies 10,000 feet above ground level (AGL), well above drone operations.

The MMA has the capability to detect heat signatures; it did not detect any suspicious heat signatures or drones related to the drone reportings during its flight. During the flight of the MMA, every report of a suspicious drone was investigated and was resolved, and none was substantiated.

From the Daily Mail, January 9, 2020:

…Meanwhile, another drone sighting was reported near Omaha, Nebraska, on Tuesday night. Television cameras for WOWT-TV spotted the mysterious flying object just outside of Mead, Nebraska.

An unmanned aircraft measuring about four-to-six feet was seen flying overhead. According to the news channel, the drone flew so close to the ground that the sound of the propellers could be heard on camera.

Local officials are baffled as to why anyone would operate a drone over an area that is entirely made up of rural farmland.

‘There’s not much out here to look at, so it kind of makes you wonder, well, if they’re not looking at anything, what are they planning, you know? Or whoever or whatever is going on?’ Saunders County Deputy Kyle Kennenbeck said.

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

NWCG typing for Unmanned Aerial Systems

erickson air-crane
An Erickson Air-Crane reloads with retardant while fighting the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group establishes the standards to describe the capabilities of firefighting aircraft, crews, and equipment. For example, a Very Large Air Tanker  must be able to carry at least 8,000 gallons of water or retardant, while a Type 4 air tanker carries less than 800. This makes it possible to order a resource that fits a specific need.

NWCG standards types aircraft
NWCG standards for types of aircraft, December 13, 2019. NWCG.

(Download the chart above)

The chart above is the latest released by the NWCG. The only significant changes I could detect are the addition of examples of resources and a new category of aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

With the increasing use of UAS, or drones, the organization felt the need to set up standards for these aircraft that have a wide variety of designs. The new requirements specify endurance, altitude for data collection, and maximum range. Surprisingly the NWCG did not establish a requirement for payload capacity. In the foreseeable future drones will be delivering supplies to firefighters in remote areas. It will be necessary to set up categories for aircraft that can carry 25 pounds, 6,000 pounds, or anything in between.

Helicopter struck by suspected drone over downtown Los Angeles makes precautionary landing

This could happen over a wildfire

Drone Damage ABC7 helicopter
Damage on the ABC7 helicopter’s horizontal stabilizer believed to have been caused by midair collision with a drone. Screenshot from ABC7 video.

Wednesday night a news helicopter from ABC7 flying over Los Angeles was struck by what the crew believes was a drone. Not sure exactly what had been hit, they executed a precautionary landing to look for damage, and found a hole in the horizontal stabilizer.

If it had hit the windshield or a rotor blade the event could have had a very different outcome.

Drones are sometimes illegally flown over active wildfires, which requires all aerial fire suppression to be halted until the air can be declared safe again.

This is the FAA’s position on flying drones over fires (from 2018):

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is warning drone operators to avoid unauthorized flights near wildfires or face civil penalties totaling more than $20,000.

“If you fly your drone anywhere near a wildfire, you could get someone killed,” the FAA warned earlier this week. Unauthorized drone flights not only constitute a collision hazard for fire fighting aircraft but also can distract pilots of firefighting aircraft, the FAA said.

“If you own a drone, do not fly near or over a wildfire,” said FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell. “It’s against the law, and firefighting aircraft could be grounded, disrupting time-critical fire fighting efforts. Your hobby is not worth another person’s life.”

Intrusions by unauthorized drones into fire traffic control areas have repeatedly forced the suspension of aerial firefighting operations (“Fire Traffic Control,” ASW, 7-8/16), and reports from wildland fire agencies indicate the extent of the disruptions.

For example, the FAA cited several such reports: “Drone spotted by pilot at eye level during [helicopter] bucket work.” “[S]potted a drone over fire. All helicopter operations shut down.” “UAS [unmanned aircraft system] intrusion into TFR (temporary flight restriction). Helicopters disengaged from fire.”

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.