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.

U.S. Navy acquires MQ-8C Fire Scout drones based on the Bell 407

MQ-8C Fire Scout
The MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter conducts flight test at Naval Air Patuxent River Webster Field Annex in Saint Inigoes, Maryland. (U.S. Navy photo)

It is interesting that a drone the U.S. Navy is buying by the dozens is named “Fire Scout”. It is probably only a matter of time before large drones like this one and the K-MAX which has already been demonstrated for fire managers are seen routinely over wildfires hauling supplies, equipment, and providing intelligence.

The Fire Scout, based on the Bell 407, can remain on station for up to twelve hours depending on the payload. The Navy plans to purchase 38 of the Northrop Grumman produced aircraft.

The Department of the Interior is rapidly developing drone capability for aerial ignition and gathering intelligence on fires. An aircraft like this or the K-MAX that could haul hundreds of pounds of supplies, serve as a radio or cell phone repeater, and provide real time video, might be the next giant leap for the DOI. Of course smaller drones can also perform intelligence gathering and communications tasks.

Below is information from the Naval Air System Command:


NAVAIR

Published July 8, 2019

 

NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER, Md — The Navy declared initial operational capability of the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter June 28 clearing the way for fleet operations and training.

The MQ-8 Fire Scout is a sea-based, vertical lift unmanned system that is designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces.

“This milestone is a culmination of several years of hard work and dedication from our joint government and industry team,” said Capt. Eric Soderberg, Fire Scout program manager. “We are excited to get this enhanced capability out to the fleet.”

The MQ-8C variant is an endurance and payload upgrade to its predecessor, the MQ-8B, offering up to twelve hours on station depending on payload, and incorporates the commercial Bell 407 airframe.

The Northrop Grumman-built Fire Scout complements the manned *MH-60 helicopter by extending the range and endurance of ship-based operations.  It provides unique situational awareness and precision target support for the Navy.

The MQ-8C has flown over 1,500 hours with more than 700 sorties to date. Over the next few years, Northrop Grumman will continue MQ-8C production deliveries to the Navy to complete a total of 38 aircraft.

The MQ-8C will be equipped with an upgraded radar that allows for a larger field of view and a range of digital modes including weather detection, air-to-air targeting and a ground moving target indicator (GMTI).   It will deploy with LCS in fiscal year 2021 while the MQ-8B conducts operations aboard LCS in 5th and 7th Fleets.


*The Sikorsky SH-60/MH-60 Seahawk is a twin turboshaft engine, multi-mission United States Navy helicopter based on the United States Army UH-60 Black Hawk and a member of the Sikorsky S-70 family.

Multiple aircraft to assist in Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment

NASA DC-8 study smoke plume fires
The NASA DC-8, N817NA, will be one of the aircraft used to study smoke plumes over fires.

At least 17 researchers from 12 agencies and universities will be leading various segments of a large project to develop more detailed information about wildland fires. This will be the second year of the study, titled Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment—A Plan for Integrated, Large Fire–Atmosphere Field Campaigns.

The goals include obtaining additional information about how fires burn so that new fire spread models can be developed and existing ones improved. They will also be collecting information about fire-emitted heat and emissions fluxes, near-source micrometeorology, plume properties, smoke dispersion, and atmospheric chemistry. Both wildfires and prescribed fires will be part of the study.

The expected outcomes from the FASMEE project include:

  1. Improved scientific knowledge of the physically coupled fuels–fire–smoke–chemistry system.
  2. Exportable methodologies for measuring fuels for fire spread, fuel consumption, and fire emissions models.
  3. New insights concerning the processes that drive the spatial organization of fire energy and emissions that defines the transition between fires and plumes that impact air quality.
  4. Improvement of existing operational fire and smoke models and the development of new, more advanced models based on the collection of an unprecedented dataset (fuels, fire, meteorological, smoke plume and chemistry).
aircraft equipment study smoke plumes fires
A large assortment of ground and air based platforms will be used in the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment.

Data collected from the ground:

  • Instruments on towers upwind, in the burn unit, and downwind.
  • LIDAR on vehicles.
  • Automatic weather stations.
  • Mobile labs.

Data collected above the ground:

  • Multiple manned fixed wing aircraft.
  • Drones, small and large.
  • Radiosonde.
  • Geostationary satellite.
  • Polar orbiting satellite.

One of the aircraft will be NASA’s *DC-8-60/70 which will be especially useful when collecting data over wildfires due to its ability to remain in the air for an extended amount of time with a range of more than 5,000 miles.

Measurements will be synchronized across time and space. This is especially critical for multi-temporal measurements of the fire and plume, for which failure will jeopardize the end-product usability. A key feature of the proposed field campaigns is that they will be designed up-front to be completely integrated with high-resolution mapping of fuels, fuel consumption, fire behavior, plume dynamics, and smoke measurements and temporally synched to provide context for related measurements (e.g., flaming fire front, heat release, and plume dynamics).

Vegetation data at prescribed fires will be collected at each site before and after the burns.  During the burns much of the work will be conducted from the ground, but multiple aircraft will also be used at the burn sites.

Prescribed fires will be studied at locations that have large projects planned:

  • Fort Stewart in Georgia
  • Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina
  • Fishlake National Forest in Utah, and
  • Kaibab National Forest in Arizona

More information about the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment.


*Interesting historical note about the NASA DC-8-60/70 (N817NA) which was delivered in 1969 to Alitalia Airlines. It had an incident in 2000 (according to Wikimedia Commons) when it inadvertently flew through a diffuse volcanic ash cloud of the Mt. Hekla volcano during a flight from Edwards Air Force Base (Edwards, California) to Kiruna, Sweden. Although the ash plume was not visible to the flight crew, sensitive research experiments and instruments detected it. In-flight performance checks and post flight visual inspections revealed no damage to the airplane or engine first-stage fan blades; subsequent detailed examination of the engines revealed clogged turbine cooling air passages. The engines were removed and overhauled.

Drone used for aerial ignition in Arizona

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.

Tom Kurth’s Type 1 Incident Management Team began using drones on fires in 2017. In 2018 they experimented with using one for aerial ignition, lighting burnouts by dropping spheres which burst into flame 30 to 45 seconds after being released.

Last weekend the same type of drone was used for aerial ignition on the Maroon Fire 18 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona.

In this video posted by Kurth’s IMT last August, team members describe how they used drones on the Taylor Creek and Klondike Fires in southwest Oregon for aerial surveying, detecting the location of heat, mapping, and aerial ignition.

The Maroon Fire has burned 5,000 acres on the Coconino National Forest in a cinder basin northeast of Flagstaff. Aerial ignitions are being conducted by helicopter and drones.

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.
maroon fire coconino national forest
Burnout operation on the Maroon Fire, Coconino National Forest. USFS photo.

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

Kaman developing next-generation of K-MAX unmanned aircraft system

The unmanned K-MAX supported U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and has demonstrated remotely-piloted wildland fire missions

K-MAX helicopter unmanned
Part of the Kaman and K-MAX display at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.

Today the Kaman Aerospace Group, a division of the Kaman Corporation, announced at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta that they are developing completely new hardware and software systems that control the unmanned K-MAX helicopter.

When the company first built the system 20 years ago they used off the shelf equipment, but since then the technology has leapt far beyond what was available in the 1990s. The redesigned kit will completely replace what was used when K-MAXs delivered thousands of loads of supplies and equipment to soldiers in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014, carrying more than 1.5 million pounds of cargo, sometimes through areas that would be considered unacceptably risky for human pilots. Typically operating at night, these unmanned missions replaced the equivalent of 900 convoy vehicles and eliminated 46,000 hours of exposure time to IED’s, direct fire, and other threats to our troops on dangerous roads.

In 2015 a remotely-piloted K-MAX demonstrated for wildland fire officials how an optionally piloted helicopter could drop water on a simulated fire and haul cargo in an external load.

K-MAX remotely piloted dipping water
A remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter refills a water bucket during a demonstration October 14, 2015 east of Boise, ID. K-MAX photo.

The system being developed will have the capability to fly either manned or unmanned missions. Kaman expects to offer the redesigned kits for old and new K-MAXs in 2020.

In 2016 Kaman restarted production of the K-MAX after a 13-year hiatus.

“Whether the need is night-time aerial firefighting, resupplying troops in austere environments or delivering critical supplies in support of humanitarian missions, the next generation of the unmanned K-MAX will continue to demonstrate its unmatched readiness and efficiency no matter the requirement,” stated Roger Wassmuth, Senior Director Business Development, Air Vehicles & MRO Division.