CWN drone used to map Martin Fire

Above: File photo of a Silent Falcon drone poised for launch. Image credit: Silent Falcon UAS Technologies.

(Originally published at 6:48 p.m. MDT July 13, 2018)

The Department of the Interior continues to aggressively move toward the use of drones to provide information for land managers. The agency is purchasing dozens of them and recently issued Call When Needed (CWN) contracts for contractor operated and maintained drones to be used on fires.

On July 11 the Bureau of Land Management activated one of the new CWN drones to map the HUGE Martin Fire that has burned 435,000 acres in Northern Nevada. The company that got the call was Bridger Aerospace, an outfit that also had nine Aero Commanders under contract for Type 1 Air Attack services, used as a platform for coordinating airborne firefighting aircraft. Drones, for Bridger, is a new field, and they have partnered with Silent Falcon UAS Technologies for the use of their Silent Falcon drone.

Martin Fire progression map
July 7 was a big day on the Martin Fire.

During its first day on the fire, today, July 13, it has conducted four sorties for a total of 5.6 hours, according to Gill Dustin, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Manager for the BLM. The aircraft is being used to map unburned islands inside the perimeter, look for remaining heat on the fire and outside the fireline, and identify structures and other infrastructure to determine if they have been damaged or not. The company brought four aircraft to the fire, but so far are only using one at a time.

IR photo Martin Fire drone
Infrared photo taken by Silent Falcon UAS with Ascent Vision CM-100 Gimbal. Credit: Bridger Aerospace.
aerial photo Martin fire drone
Screen capture with incident map on the left. Camera keystone (field of view) is the red cone on the right side of the aircraft. Credit (Bridger Aerospace). Camera view is on the right.

The BLM has secured from the FAA an Emergency Course of Action (ECOA) to enable the aircraft to operate within the Temporary Flight Restriction. Kurt Friedemann, Vice President of Bridger Aerospace, said that on the Martin Fire it has been flying at 8,000 feet, which in that area is about 3,000 feet above the ground.

The Silent Falcon is powered by an electric motor drawing its power from a battery. But there are also solar panels on the wings which can add a small amount of additional power to the battery while in flight. With the fuselage made of carbon fiber, it is quite light and energy efficient. Mr. Friedemann said that occasionally the aircraft can take advantage of thermals, like a glider, to extend the amount of time it can loiter over a target. Normally they expect to get at least 5 hours of flight time out of the aircraft. It is launched on a spring-loaded catapult, and has no landing gear. It lands via parachute — upside down to protect the payload. The entire system can be transported in a pickup truck.

Silent Falcon drone
File photo of a Silent Falcon drone. Image credit: Silent Falcon UAS Technologies

The payload can be changed to meet the needs of the end user, but for this mission it has electro-optical and infrared sensors.

On the Martin fire, which is almost 60 miles long east to west, the Silent Falcon is operating out of line of sight, which puts it into a different certification category than your typical consumer drone.

To integrate the drone into the management of the incident there are two critical positions that are filled by the incident —  an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Manager and a Data Specialist. The manager helps to integrate the system into the Incident Management Team structure.  A drone, especially while live-streaming video, can generate a crap-ton of data. Managing that can be problematic if it’s not figured out in advance and carefully curated as it is collected.

Mr. Friedemann said that just 10 days ago they completed 7 days of training for personnel and carding for the aircraft in West Wendover, Nevada. And now they have their flight crew spiked out miles from the Incident Command Post in one of the most sparsely populated areas of the United States.

Colorado beta testing drone system that would enhance firefighters’ situational awareness

(Originally published at Wildfire Today)

The state of Colorado is working on a system that would use drones to provide live video of wildfires to wildland firefighters’ cell phones. The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting is beta testing a DVI Mavic drone that would push the real time video to firefighters using software developed by the military, Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK).

The program has the capability of displaying data from tracking devices carried by soldiers, or firefighters, and identifying their location on a map, which in this case could also show the fire in real time.

If they are successful in developing and implementing a system that can provide to fire managers real time information about the location of a wildfire AND firefighting resources, it would achieve what we call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing those two elements of information.

The DJI Mavic can only stay in the air for 20 to 30 minutes before having to return to base to replace the battery. So this beta test is probably only a proof of concept attempt, perhaps leading to a more robust drone, rotor or fixed wing, that could stay in the air for a much longer period of time.

PIlatus PC12 Colorado
One of the two State of Colorado’s Pilatus PC12’s, was photographed in March of 2016 in Sacramento.

Colorado already has the ability to transmit near real time imagery of fires from their two MultiMission Aircraft, Pilatus PC12’s. They are integrated with the Colorado Wildfire Information System, a geospatial database that displays incident images and details to local fire managers through a web based application.

In Oregon, drone crashes, starts wildfire

Above: The burned drone. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

(Originally published on Wildfire Today July 11, 2018)

A small drone started a vegetation fire when it crashed near Springfield, Oregon this week. On July 10 Cameron Austin-Connolly was flying his drone over a field when a large unleashed dog left its owner, ran and jumped on him. The impact knocked the controller out of his hands and the drone immediately went out of control and crashed. As you can see in the video (that Mr. Austin-Connolly gave us permission to use) within about three seconds the still operating camera recorded flames.

You can also see two dogs running at Mr. Austin-Connolly.

He wrote on his Facebook page:

My drone crashes and when I go to look for it I saw smoke and flames so I called 911. Springfield FD quickly showed up and put out the flames. They even returned my drone and gopro. The Fire Marshall said that was their first drone fire.

In case you’re wondering about the reaction of the dogs’ owner, Mr. Austin-Connolly said he just kept walking and didn’t say anything.

Mr. Austin-Connolly told us, “it is a hand built first person view drone, or FPV done. Some people also call them racing drones since they are fast.”

He said it was using a lithium polymer, or “lipo”, battery.

Most small consumer-sized drones use lithium ion batteries, while racing drones generally operate with lithium polymer batteries.

The battery that was in the drone. The label says: “Infinity, 1300 MAH, race spec”. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

In March we wrote about the crash of a drone that started a 335-acre fire on the Coconino National Forest in Northern Arizona. Few details about that drone were available, except that it was about 16″ x 16″.  The comments by our readers developed a great deal of information about rechargeable batteries and the possibility of them catching fire. We also learned about several other drone crashes that started fires.

In May we published an article about the fact that electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries present a complex and hazardous situation for firefighters responding to a vehicle accident.

The fact is, there are many examples of both lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries catching fire. There is no doubt that when a lithium ion battery is subject to an impact, a short circuit can occur in one or more of the cells, creating heat which may ignite the chemicals inside the battery. This can spread to the adjoining cells and lead to the condition known as “thermal runaway” in which the fire escalates. If as in a vehicle, there are thousands of batteries, it can be extremely difficult to extinguish the blaze. And worse, it can reignite days or weeks later.

When compact fluorescent light bulbs were introduced they saved energy but were slow to get fully bright and many people thought the color of the light was unpleasant. I knew then that it was immature lighting technology. There were going to be better options. Now LED bulbs save even more energy, come in various light temperatures (colors), and illuminate at near full brightness immediately. For now, they are expensive, but will still pay for themselves in three to five years.

Lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries are the fluorescent bulbs of battery technology. They are too heavy, don’t hold enough power, and they too often catch fire. No one wants to be on an airplane when flames erupt from an e-cigarette, cell phone, wireless headphones, or laptop computer, all of which can ignite even when turned off.

So until that next major step in battery technology occurs, what do we do about drones? Is the risk so low that we should not be concerned? When land managers enact fire restrictions during periods of high wildfire danger, do we also prohibit the use of drones? Should drones ever be allowed over vegetation in a fire-prone environment during wildfire season? And what about the hundreds of drones owned and operated by the Department of the Interior that flew 5,000 missions last year? Not all are battery operated, but some are.

We thank Mr. Austin-Connolly for providing the information, photos, and the video. When we asked, he said, “If my experience can be helpful I’m all for it.”

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

Using drones and artificial intelligence to map and analyze fires

Above L. to R. — Dale Hamilton, Nick Hamilton, Casey Lewis, Aleesha Chavez — all of Northwest Nazarene University.

A group from Northwest Nazarene University is working on systems using artificial intelligence to analyze data collected by drones to map wildfires and determine fire effects.

We filmed this interview in a room where exhibits were being installed at the Fire Continuum Conference in Missoula, Montana the week of May 21, 2018.

DOI issuing drone CWN contracts and purchasing dozens

The Department of the Interior is continuing their very aggressive movement into the world of drones. They have held training sessions to get scores of employees certified to operate the devices and are advertising and awarding contracts for call when needed (CWN) drone vendors. The Department has recently published at least four solicitations, awards, or special notices about drones and unmanned aerial systems.

contracts drones fires wildfires contracts drones fires wildfires

One of them was a justification to skip the process of accepting bids from multiple vendors and so they could

3DR Solo Drone
3DR Solo Drone

issue a sole source contract to buy 56 of the 3DR Solo drones (Quadcopters) and associated equipment. We have seen a version of the aircraft with a gimbal but without a camera listed for around $2,000.

Birdseyeview Aerobotics received a contract to supply “Fixed Wing Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)” potentially worth over $620,000.

The epidemic of CWN firefighting aircraft is spreading beyond large air tankers and single engine air tankers. The DOI has issued at least four CWN contracts for contractor-operated and maintained small drones to be used on fires.

At a May 11 briefing for Senators and Representatives about the upcoming “fire year”, Secretary 0f Agriculture Sonny Purdue threw a verbal jab at Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, saying Secretary Zinke frequently “brags” about how the DOI is moving rapidly into the use of drones.

Below is information from the Department of the Interior dated May 15, 2018:


BOISE, Idaho – As part of a broader strategy to aggressively combat wildfires, the U.S. Department of the Interior has awarded a Call When Needed contract to four U.S. companies for small-unmanned aircraft systems services. The contract, which is Interior’s first of its kind, will allow the agency to obtain fully contractor-operated and maintained small drones that are ready when needed to support wildland fire operations, search and rescue, emergency management and other resource missions in the Contiguous 48 States and Alaska.

“This contract reinforces our commitment to partnering with industry to provide our employees with the latest technology in carrying out their responsibilities as stewards of our nation’s public lands while also ensuring their safety is paramount,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “This capability is key to implementing our new and aggressive approach to combatting the threat of large wildfires that I outlined in my Wildland Fire Directive last September.”

The award follows a lengthy process to develop mission performance requirements and select a range of experienced commercial providers to meet this need. Companies receiving awards included, Bridger Aerospace of Boseman, Montana, Insitu of Bingen, Washington, Pathways2Solutions of Nashville, Tennessee and Precision Integrated of Newberg, Oregon.

“As the recognized leader in the application of unmanned aircraft technology in natural resources, wildland fire, and land management applications, we look forward to supporting our Interior bureaus’ needs and those of our interagency partners with this first-ever contracted small-unmanned aircraft systems  resource,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Safety, Resource Protection, and Emergency Services Harry Humbert. “This strategic contract capability compliments the division and tactical level capabilities of our fleet vertical take-off and landing fixed wing and quadcopter small-unmanned aircraft systems, providing critical enhancements to firefighter safety and effectiveness.”

The contract consists of one base year with four option years. The total potential contract value is $17 million. Aircraft selected under the contract will be able to operate day or night, without a runway in sustained winds up to 25 knots and at altitudes consistent with typical western wildfire environments.

“These contracted small-unmanned aircraft systems will supplement the manned firefighting fleet by providing the capability to operate during dense smoke/inversion situations which often occur and have heretofore hampered the aggressive prosecution of destructive wildfires,” said Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. “Infrared/thermal camera technology onboard these small-unmanned aircraft systems can penetrate smoke and gather/disseminate information to deliver critical situational awareness for incident commander. These sensors also provide us with the first real opportunity to collect, analyze, and archive relevant wildfire suppression and retardant outcome data since aerial suppression began in 1930.”

“Interior has a long history of collaborating and partnering with industry to provide our field and fire personnel with safe, effective, and cost-efficient commercial air services to meet unique mission needs,” said Interior’s Office of Aviation Services Director, Mark Bathrick. “Historically, nearly 70 percent of our manned aircraft missions are supported through commercial air services contracts. The capabilities of these contractor operated small-unmanned aircraft systems will provide our scientists, land managers, emergency managers, and firefighters with additional capacity to obtain enhanced sensing, increase employee and public safety, realize cost savings, and service Interior’s diverse and dynamic mission requirements more responsively.  This new capability fulfills another important element in Interior’s Unmanned Aerial Services Integration Strategy.”

Like their Interior small-unmanned aircraft systems fleet counterparts, these aircraft will operate from within the Temporary Flight Restrictions established over most large wildfires. This will enable them to take advantage of Interior’s unique authorities from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate beyond visual line of sight—a critical capability in the smoky wildfire environment. Their longer endurance will provide incident commanders with near real-time access to critical fire boundary, behavior, and hotspot location, enabling them to make faster, more informed decisions than in the past. In conjunction with the tactical and division level fleet small-unmanned aircraft systems Interior has already integrated into the wildland fire environment, these aircraft will enhance firefighter safety through the identification of emerging changes in fire behavior and escape routes.

Interior is currently working to bring small unmanned aerial systems to the hazardous aerial ignition mission, which over the last 13 years has resulted in the loss of two contracted helicopters and five lives. Future initiatives include the continued development of optionally-piloted helicopter technology developed by the Department of Defense to enable safe and effective use suppression of fires during the approximately 16 hours each day when night and reduced visibility currently prevent aerial support. Historically, 20 percent of all wildfires are discovered outside periods of traditional aviation support. Interior believes tripling the amount of active aviation support time on wildfires will have game changing benefits in reducing the time, area, and cost to contain wildfires.

Oregon has 27 exclusive use aircraft on firefighting contracts this year

The Oregon Department of Forestry will have a greater emphasis this year on infrared mapping and the use of drones, and, has the 747 on a CWN contract.

Above: Whitewater Fire, 6 miles east of Idanha, Oregon. August 19, 2017. Inciweb photo.

With smoke from the 2017 wildfires still fresh in the minds of Oregonians, the Oregon Department of Forestry is already gearing up for this summer’s wildfires.

The agency’s Interim Fire Operations Manager Blake Ellis said a lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes each winter and spring. “We work to ensure firefighters are equipped and ready to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires all year, with a special emphasis on being staffed and ready for the drier months,” said Ellis. ” We essentially double our firefighting forces going into the summer, when wildfire risk is highest.”

Readiness activities include:

  • Contracts and agreements for firefighting equipment, aircraft and other resources have been signed
  • A new policy governing use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles (also known as drones or UAVs) has been adopted. These systems will support fire protection and natural resource management.
  • Hiring of seasonal firefighters is underway. New firefighters will attend training at ODF and interagency fire schools across the state in June.
  • Permanent and returning firefighters will take fire line refresher training over the next two months.
  • Hundreds of miles of fire hose have been cleaned and rolled, ready for use statewide.

Last year ODF had great success testing infrared technology. Carried on aerial vehicles, the equipment was able to see through heavy smoke on two Oregon wildfires – Horse Prairie and Eagle Creek. These systems provide sharp images and real-time fire mapping for fire managers, boosting safety and tactical planning. This year ODF is incorporating these technologies into its toolkit.

ODF’s Aviation Manager Neal Laugle said the increasing use of various types of aircraft in recent years highlights the importance of keeping up with new technology to achieve the agency’s mission. “From detection to fire mapping and active wildfire suppression, aircraft continue to play a critical role in the fight to save lives, resources and property,” said Laugle.

In 2017 contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF, more than 100 hours above average, he said. For 2018 the agency has contracted the same number of aircraft as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large airtanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use. We also have call-when needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft. Among these agreements is one for the use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant should the situation warrant.”

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

“Uncontrolled fires can be devastating. Our relationships with our partners are invaluable to support prevention and suppression efforts statewide,” said Ellis.

Drone lands, catches fire, ignites wildfire

(UPDATED at 11:27 a.m. MST March 7, 2018)

The drone that landed, caught fire, and ignited what became a 335-acre fire in Northern Arizona was battery-powered and approximately 16″ x 16″, a spokesperson for the Coconino National Forest said. The operator reported the fire and was later cited for causing timber, trees, slash, brush, or grass to burn. The spokesperson did not know exactly how the drone caught fire.

****

(Originally published at 4:32 p.m. MST March 6, 2018)

Just a couple of hours ago we wrote about how proud the Department of the Interior is of their drone program (as they should be). And there’s no doubt that Unmanned Aerial Systems can play an important part in improving situational awareness for wildland firefighters.

But today  investigators have determined that the preliminary cause of a wildfire north of Flagstaff is a drone that landed and caught fire. At 3:25 p.m. MST Tuesday the Coconino National Forest said firefighters had stopped the spread of the resulting wildfire after it burned 335 acres near Kendrick Park by Forest Roads 514 and 524.

kendrick fire map arizona drone

There is no information yet about the operator of the drone or if it was powered by a battery or gasoline.

All of these photos were provided by the Coconino National Forest.

Kendrick Fire Arizona

Kendrick Fire Arizona

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

Drone detects spot fire while other aircraft grounded

It occurred on a wildfire in Southern Oregon during very smoky conditions

The Department of the Interior has been proactive and innovative recently regarding the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones, in land management. And they don’t hesitate to push out information about how they are using the small remote controlled helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.

In January the Department released a large, fancy, colorful infographic extolling the virtues of the drone program. They reported that 312 unmanned aircraft managed by the Office of Aviation Services supports everything from fighting wildfires to monitoring dams and mapping wildlife. In 2017, 200 certified DOI UAS pilots flew 4,976 flights in 32 states. The largest category of flights, 39 percent, was for training and proficiency, with 30 percent used for mapping and 14 percent for interagency fire management.

Now another large, fancy, colorful infographic (1.1 MB) is touting how a drone detected a spot fire across a fireline. It happened during very smoky conditions last year in Oregon:

“August 2017, two of the Alaska Type 1 Incident Management Team’s remote pilots flew a drone in support of a burnout operation on the Umpqua North Fire Complex in Southern Oregon. The burnout was conducted as a necessary means to restrict the fires encroachment towards a five mile stretch of highway 138, where the Toketee Dam power plant, houses, and the USFS Toketee Ranger Station were located. The values at risk were estimated to be worth in excess of $50 million. Smoke limited visibility to 100 feet and grounded all manned aircraft. The drone used was a small battery powered quadcopter fixed with an IR [infrared] camera providing a live video feed to firefighting personnel.

“The flight’s objective was to provide situational awareness for the division supervisor during the burnout operation” the infographic says. “A secondary objective was to monitor an active section of the fire, which was sending airborne firebrands behind the established control line. During the operation, a spot fire was discovered utilizing the IR [infrared] camera feed. The location was established, division supervisor notified and several resources dispatched to contain it before it got out of control.”

drone wildfire detection
A portion of the DOI’s latest drone infographic.

According to the DOI, drones:drone cost

  • “Limits exposure and reduces risk to pilots and wildland firefighters.
  • Able to fly when manned aircraft are not able.
  • Limits cost – Each 3DR Solo drone costs $1,800. The IR sensor package costs $6,000. Other costs are the wages for the operator. If that mission was flown with a contracted light helicopter: AStar 350 B3 costs $3,480.00 for daily availability and $1,500 per flight hour.
  • Easily packable and able to fly in remote locations.”