Video package from UAV was installed on Air Attack ship working on the Happy Camp Fire

live wildfire video
Live microwave linked 28 miles to SkyIMD’s IR/EO from the base station. Live control occurred in the field, and was transferred through the internet to Incident Command, where the Planning Section Chief could operate the superzoom gimbal.

A suite of video sensors normally used on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) was installed on an Air Attack aircraft working on the 134,056-acre Happy Camp Fire in northern California. The instruments provide normal and infrared video, making it possible for the Air Tactical Group Supervisor and personnel at the Incident Command Post to see in real time through smoke to determine where the priorities should be and where aircraft should be assigned to drop water or retardant.

Below is information provided by SkyIMD, Inc.:

“Remote control of airborne stabilized camera EO/IR (Electro Optical/Infrared) gimbals designed for UAVs is available through SkyIMD SkyFusion Pak for fixed wing, rotorcraft, and UAVs. Systems support fully automated 3D geo-tracking of static locations or GIS (Geographic Information System) fire lines comprising of thousands of points. Advanced object recognition provides hands-off following of aircraft and vehicles. Satellite and 3G connectivity delivers streaming video or snapshots over the internet to any iPhone, Android, or computer.

“Infrared stops fire from hiding in its own smokescreen,” says Hart Drobish (President of Courtney Aviation, the Air Attack Operator). “SkyIMD makes an extremely sophisticated tool intuitive for first time users. Without training, Air Attacks see through smoke. Zoomed in, IR identifies fire creeping through retardant that is too late once visible to the naked eye.” Hart is developing IR solutions on multiple platforms to extend coverage.

The Planning Section Chief responsible for intelligence, strategy, and objectives at the Incident Command Post (ICP) operated the FLIR infrared sensor when the cockpit crew was busy managing airspace. The Chief of the Happy Camp Complex fire could click the fire map or touch the live video to “walk around” deep in the burn. The new spot fires discovered were then verified by the aircrew. Using the same remote control, SkyIMD in San Francisco interactively trained the Chief who had never before operated an EO/IR superzoom gimbal. The easy interface took only a few minutes to learn and become a valuable asset.

“Seeing through the smoke is indispensable,” says Air Attack Dick Stiliha (ATGS, Air Tactical Group Supervisor). “I hope to never be without infrared again. Sharing live video with ICP was very beneficial. Equally valuable, recorded video was used for daily post mission debrief to improve tanker pilots’ effectiveness and safety.”

“The only growing-pain with remote controlling the airborne infrared was that so many people wanted to use it,” says Henri Wolf (SkyIMD CTO and former wildfire tanker pilot). “Since drones are not currently approved for wildfires, some aerial firefighters would like to use the same cameras on a manned-drone parked out of the way, above the congested fire attack altitudes. A ground operated gimbal flown solo, a manned UAV, will provide all the benefits of a UAS, extending ICP’s vision while relieving workload, and has the potential to evolve into an unmanned aircraft in the future.“  “

NASA testing UAV to detect fires

Mike Logan NASA UAV
NASA researcher Mike Logan plans to use this small unmanned aerial vehicle to detect fires at the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and North Carolina as part of an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by David C. Bowman of NASA Langley.

In November we ran a story about how Mike Logan, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, put a group of students to work designing and building an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that could help to detect wildfires in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp. Now Mr. Logan has another UAV that has a range of about eight miles which can stay aloft for an hour before the batteries need recharging.

From NASA:

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NASA’s research in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) may soon provide a means for early detection and mitigation of fires in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, a nearly 50,000-square-acre region centered on the Virginia-North Carolina border.

NASA’s Langley Research Center, in nearby Hampton, Virginia, has signed a one-year agreement with the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to test small UASs for the detection of brush and forest fires. The research is part of the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s UAS Integration in the National Airspace System (NAS) project.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating the feasibility of airborne unmanned platforms and their ability to offer a safer and more cost-effective alternative for surveillance of potential areas of interest immediately following thunderstorm activity,” said Great Dismal Swamp Refuge Manager Chris Lowie. “The agency hopes to see a significant decrease in cost to survey the Great Dismal Swamp, as well as a reduction in time to detect nascent fires, which could potentially save millions of dollars to the taxpayer in firefighting costs,” added Lowie.

Mike Logan, the research lead at Langley, came up with the idea after a forest fire in 2011 that lasted almost four months and cost more than $10 million to extinguish. Smoke from that fire, which was caused by a lightning strike, traveled as far north as Maryland only three years after another $10-million blaze in 2008, according to FWS.

“I made a phone call to the local fire captain after days of inhaling peat bog smoke,” said Logan. “I learned most fires are caused by lightning strikes and the only way they can spot them is by hiring an aircraft to do an aerial survey of the huge swamp. So I figured why not use a UAV as a fire detector?”

After approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the team at Langley plans to fly a lightweight UAS equipped with cameras and transmitters over the wildlife refuge.

“One is an out-of-the-nose camera that can see smoke plumes as they are rising,” Logan explained. “The other is an infrared camera housed in the body of the plane that points down. It can find hot spots by detecting heat signatures.”

Although the aircraft can fly as fast as 40 miles an hour, when used in this capacity it will be flown slower while it transmits video, allowing individuals on the ground to observe what is occurring in the live video. The transmissions can be viewed on a laptop computer in a mobile ground station.

Logan says the drone, which weighs about 15 pounds and has an almost six-foot wingspan, has a range of about eight miles and can stay aloft as long as an hour, before the batteries need recharging. The aircraft also can be programmed to fly on its own, but a safety pilot will monitor operations during the tests.

“This kind of application for unmanned aerial systems shows just one public benefit,” said Dave Hinton, Langley associate director for UAS technologies and applications. “They can be used to detect fires or locate people who are lost.”

Drones may be used over wildfires in Oregon and Washington next year

ScanEagle drone
Boeing’s ScanEagle. Boeing photo.

From KPLU:

State forestry departments in Washington and Oregon had hoped to try out drones this summer to provide reconnaissance at wildfire scenes. But neither firefighting agency managed to pull it off. Now both plan to try again next year.

State foresters in southern Oregon acquired a remote-controlled helicopter at the beginning of fire season, but discovered they couldn’t legally fly it without pilot’s licenses. The training and paperwork are now in progress.

Meanwhile, a leader in the Northwest’s unmanned aircraft industry has launched a separate project to develop a nighttime wildfire reconnaissance capability. Eric Simpkins of Bend, Oregon, said he’s lined up four drone providers willing to donate flight time to demonstrate the new technology for wildfires.

“Fires do change during the night. Winds come up, move the fires a lot,” Simpkins said at an industry conference in Warm Springs, Oregon. “It is very hard for fire managers to know what is going on during hours of darkness and it inhibits their ability to get a quick start the next morning.”

This past July, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources got emergency approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to deploy a drone at a wildfire north of Wenatchee. Boeing subsidiary Insitu provided one of its ScanEagle unmanned aircraft to use for free. But the experiment was scrubbed at the last minute.

A state spokesman says they want to try again next summer on a tamer wildfire.

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Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Robert.

NIFC warns that drones could cause serious injury or death to firefighters

The National Interagency Fire Center released a statement on Friday about unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, saying they could cause “serious injury or death to firefighters”. And, the devices could “have midair collisions with airtankers, helicopters, and other aircraft engaged in wildfire suppression missions”.

Drones have come within or near the Temporary Flight Restrictions in place over wildfires three times this year, NIFC reported.

Here is the complete press release:

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“UNAUTHORIZED UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEM FLIGHTS
THREATEN FIREFIGHTER SAFETY AND
EFFECTIVENESS OF WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION OPERATIONS

BOISE, IDAHO — Federal, state, and local wildfire managers are cautioning individuals and organizations that unauthorized operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), often referred to as “drones,” within or near wildfires threatens the safety of both aerial and ground firefighters and hampers their ability to protect lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources.

Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) are typically put in place during wildfires that require most aircraft, manned or unmanned, other than those engaged in wildfire suppression operations to obtain permission from fire managers to enter specified airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior and other wildland fire management agencies consider UAS, including those used by hobbyists and recreationists, to be aircraft and therefore subject to TFRs. This year, there have been at least three instances of a UAS being flown within or near a wildfire TFR without appropriate authorization.

Regardless of whether a TFR is implemented, individuals and organizations should not fly UAS over wildfires without prior permission from fire managers. Unauthorized UAS flights could cause serious injury or death to firefighters on the ground. They could also have midair collisions with airtankers, helicopters, and other aircraft engaged in wildfire suppression missions.

“We understand and appreciate the interest of UAS pilots in obtaining video and other data by flying over wildfires,” said Aitor Bidaburu, Chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. “It would be a real tragedy if a UAS pilot were to cause an accident that resulted in serious injuries or deaths of firefighters.”

Unauthorized UAS flights within or near wildfires could lead fire managers to suspend aerial wildfire suppression efforts until the UAS has left the TFR airspace and they are confident it won’t return. This could decrease the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations, allowing wildfires to grow larger, and in some cases, unduly threaten lives and property.

UAS operations by individuals and organizations must be authorized by the FAA or comply with the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Section 336 of P.L. 112-95). Information is available online at www.faa.gov/uas. Individuals who are determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts may be subject to civil penalties and potentially criminal prosecution.”

Drone hinders aviation on Sand Fire

A privately operated drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle) caused concern on the Sand Fire south of Placerville, California on Sunday. The person that was controlling the aircraft and getting video footage of the blaze was told by authorities to stop because of the potential danger to helicopters, lead planes, and air tankers flying over the fire.

A video shot from the drone was uploaded to YouTube showing that the aircraft was directly over the fire, which could have been a serious hazard to helicopters and air tankers operating at 50 to 180 feet above the ground.

There are reports that Air Attack, when informed of the drone, came close to grounding all firefighting aircraft until the threat could be mitigated. However the operator was found and instead, the drone was grounded.

Last month the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior issued an Interagency Aviation Safety Alert about the hazards of unmanned aerial vehicles operating near wildfires.

A person would think that a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) which was probably in effect over the fire would prohibit all non-authorized aircraft including drones under 400 feet, from operating in the area. If so, then penalties could be applicable. A pilot of an airplane can lose their pilot’s license for 90 days or so if they bust a TFR. Of course a doofus who buys $1,000 worth of drone and does stupid things with it has no license to begin with.

This problem will get worse before it gets better. There will be more and more consumer-grade drones flying around and keeping them out of fire areas is going to be very difficult.

As we have said before, Air Attack needs to live up to its name and be armed with air to air missiles (kidding!). (EDIT: Or, as we said in a comment, some of the Air-Cranes have a front mounted water cannon that could be very effective, non-lethal [except to the drone], and would not start additional fires!)

USFS and DOI warn about drones on fires

Today the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior issued an Interagency Aviation Safety Alert about the hazards of unmanned aerial vehicles operating near wildfires.

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UAS Hazard

Unmanned aircraft to be banned in U.S. National Parks

The U.S. National Park Service is banning unmanned aircraft from being used in National Parks. Director Jonathan B. Jarvis today signed a policy memorandum that directs superintendents nationwide to prohibit launching, landing, or operating the aircraft sometimes called drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or Unmanned Aerial Systems.

This is considered a temporary solution, asking each park to develop there own prohibition order, until a Servicewide regulation regarding unmanned aircraft can be implemented. That process can take considerable time, depending on the complexity of the rule, and includes public notice of the proposed regulation and opportunity for public comment.

The agency cited some examples of how the aircraft have caused problems in parks. Last September, an unmanned aircraft flew above evening visitors seated in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater. Park rangers concerned for visitors’ safety confiscated the unmanned aircraft.

In April, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park gathered for a quiet sunset, which was interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft flying back and forth and eventually crashing in the canyon. Later in the month, volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.

An article in today’s Washington Post had a lengthy article written after receiving the results of more than two dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

More than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001, a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic, according to a year-long Washington Post investigation.

Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

In other UAV news, Stillwater County, southwest of Billings, Montana, just spent $19,890 on drone which they intend to use in search and rescue scenarios, wildland fires and floods, and to scout rural residences before serving warrants.

(UPDATE June 23, 2014) The Oregon Department of Forestry is also buying a drone, but it will cost about $15,000 less than the one for Stillwater County, MT.