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.
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.
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.
“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.
Three very large air tankers, DC-10’s that carry 11,600 gallons of fire retardant, assisted firefighters on the Goodwin Fire in Arizona Wednesday, reducing the fire’s intensity around endangered structures.
As of Thursday morning the fire had burned 24,828 acres at Mayer, Arizona.
The DC-10’s are often used on wildfires, but there are only three of the “Very Large Air Tankers” on contract with the federal government, and it is unusual for all of them to be working the same fire. They were reloading with retardant at Phoenix Mesa-Gateway airport 80 miles southeast of the fire.
Rick Hatton, President and CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said their three DC-10’s completed a total of 14 sorties to the Goodwin Fire during 16 total hours of flying Wednesday. He said the facilities and crews at the air tanker base accommodated the three huge aircraft very well.
Two of the aircraft are on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service, and a third is on a call when needed contract.
Even though $2.4 million was spent in 2014 to improve the apron and plumbing at the air tanker base at Prescott, 15 miles from the fire, it was not designed to handle Very Large Air Tankers. But it can accommodate the “large” or “heavy” air tankers, such as the aircraft that can carry 2,000 to 3,500 gallons, including the P2V, BAe-146, RJ85, MD-87, 737, and C-130.
To improve the tanker base, the City of Prescott agreed to accept a $1.44 million grant from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) which was combined with $1 million from the U.S. Forest Service. The USFS funds were used to add new plumbing infrastructure and a taxiway.
The changes increased the number of loading pits from two to three. The ADOT grant covered 90 percent of the cost of the apron project, and the City of Prescott supplied the additional 10 percent.
Below are photos of the Prescott air tanker base ramp before and after the modifications.
As you can see below, Prescott makes a good temporary home for the helicopters working the Goodwin Fire.
An illegally operated drone flew into the fire area Wednesday, forcing all firefighting aircraft to be grounded for safety reasons. Law enforcement responded and is investigating the incident. Hobbyist drone operators are reminded that “if you fly, we can’t fly.” There is a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over the fire area and it is against federal law to fly a drone within the restricted area. This also happened on the Brian Head Fire in Utah Wednesday, as well as the Lightner Fire in California.
In the video below you will see what appears to be a privately owned Blackhawk helicopter, a Firehawk, dropping retardant on the Goodwin Fire. Most of the time helicopters drop water directly on the flames, but the long term retardant can be effective when applied ahead of the fire.
The National Wildfire Coordination Group has released what they call an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Incursion Protocol for Wildland Firefighters. It is their attempt to establish a procedure to follow if a UAS (or drone) is spotted near a vegetation fire. It was developed by the Interagency Fire Unmanned Aircraft Systems Subcommittee (UASSC) under the NWCG’s National Interagency Aviation Committee.
The protocol is displayed in a decision tree format, with binary choices (Yes/No) that lead to another condition or question. Generally a decision tree would lead the user through an unambiguous dialog to ultimately reach an undisputed course of action. However this tree is littered with phrases like “if safe”, “if needed”, and “intended actions”. It leaves the Incident Commander or Air Tactical Group Supervisor with a lot of leeway.
For example, if a UAS is observed at a fire, aircraft that are en route may or may not be diverted. Or with a UAS over the fire “resume fire operations when safe”. There is so much leeway and discretion available that it reduces the utility of the tool. It is not so much a “decision tree” as a checklist of items to think about.
Typically when aerial ignition is used to light a prescribed fire or a burnout operation on a wildfire, it is done with a large plastic sphere dispenser mounted in a conventional helicopter, as in the photo below.
The University of Nebraska is developing an unmanned aerial vehicle that can use plastic spheres to ignite fires. What could possibly go wrong?
Below is an article from the university written by Leslie Reed.
A new drone under development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln could change the way wildfires are fought – and encourage the use of prescribed burns for conservation purposes.
The Unmanned Aerial System for Fire Fighting, or UAS-FF, is under development by a multidisciplinary team of UNL experts in drone technology, fire ecology, conservation and public policy.
The Great Plains, California and other locations around the world are seeing an increasing number of bigger and more intense wildfires in recent years, said Dirac Twidwell, a team member and a range ecology expert and faculty member in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.
Twidwell said it’s a trend that results from land management practices, including a decline in human use of fire for ecosystem management, as well as exotic species invasions, drought and climate change.
The aerial robot would have the ability to ignite and monitor fires in remote areas. Novel technology would allow it to operate in harsh environments with limited supervision, enhancing the capabilities of fire management personnel.
“The idea is to provide a safe mechanism for people to perform fire management tasks with less risk and higher efficiency,” said Sebastian Elbaum, a computer science and engineering professor and drone researcher.
The team has successfully performed indoor tests on a prototype. Carrick Detweiler, a faculty member in the computer science and engineering department, said the researchers have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration and hope to have authorization from the FAA and fire departments for a field test of the fire-starting drone as early as March.
“Unmanned aerial devices have the potential to carry out key resource management strategies and could help us deal with something as big as the international increase in severe wildfires,” Twidwell said.
Prescribed burns, where grasslands are burned off according to a predetermined plan, are widely recognized as an effective conservation tool that eliminates invasive species, restores native plants and reduces the risk of wildfire. However, they are underutilized because of perceived safety concerns.
A recent study from Twidwell’s lab shows prescribed fires are actually less less risky to landowners than other commonly used management techniques, and using drones would further reduce the risks posed by lighting prescribed burns by hand and using all-terrain vehicles and suppression vehicles in rough and remote areas.
Many federal agencies use helicopters to ignite such areas, but it’s too costly to use helicopters on private lands.
Elbaum and Detweiler built upon their prior research as co-founders of the Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems, or NIMBUS, Laboratory to design aerial robots small enough to fit in a firefighter’s backpack, yet smart enough to safely interact with the environment
The drones carry a cargo of ping pong-like balls filled with [a chemical]. Before being dropped through a chute, each ball is manipulated and injected with [another chemical], creating a flame after several seconds. A similar method now is used to start fires for conservation purposes with helicopters and hand-held launchers, Detweiler said.
“We wanted to use proven technology that the prescribed-burn community is already familiar with,” he said.
The drones would have the ability to drop the balls in a precise pattern over the landscape – on the perimeters and interior of a rectangular plot, for example. Detweiler said the robots could be programmed so they don’t fly into areas that are too hot or windy for safe use.
The team is seeking grant funding to develop the next generation prototype with more sophisticated sensing and actuation capabilities, including the ability to operate as a swarm.
Other team members are Craig Allen, research professor and director of Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research, and Lisa Pytlik Zillig, research associate professor at UNL’s Public Policy Center. James Higgins, a mechanical engineering graduate student, designed the prototype’s mechanics, while Christian Laney, a computer science and engineering undergraduate student, was responsible for the control electronics.
The drones could be an especially effective tool in battling Eastern Red Cedar, an invasive tree species that some experts view as one of the region’s most serious ecological threats. It causes extinctions of many grassland plants and birds, collapses forage production important to the beef industry and is contributing to dangerous wildfires.
Detweiler and Elbaum said the drones also might be used in place of manned aircraft and hotshot teams of firefighters dropped by parachute in some wildfire-fighting situations.
“What we’re doing is supporting the expert and the user in the field,” Elbaum said. “The drone and the operator work together to make the job safer, more efficient and cheaper.” “
Managers on the Tepee Spring Fire on the Payette National Forest in Idaho are testing a drone, or unmanned aerial system (UAS), collecting intelligence at night when other firefighting aircraft are grounded. Below are excerpts from an AP article:
Testing of the 55-pound craft with a 12-foot wingspan [was] scheduled to start Thursday night [September 17, 2015], Air Operations Branch Director Gary Munson of the U.S. Forest Service said. “If the night flights go well, we hope to gradually integrate it into daytime operations,” Munson said.
The Aerosonde Mark 4.7 operated by Textron Systems launches from a catapult and is recovered with a large net. It can cruise at up to 70 mph. The company in an email to The Associated Press said the system has more than 100,000 flight hours with flights in hurricanes and in the Arctic, but this is its first use on wildfires.
The “aircraft’s sensors can give responders real-time date on fire growth, burn intensity, fuels and heat concentrations,” the company said. It also said data supplied by the vehicle can be used by fire managers to look at erosion risks and impacts on wildlife and vegetation in remote areas.
Brad Koeckeritz, unmanned aircraft manager for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the tests in Idaho are one of three demonstrations being done this fire season and include two other companies. Earlier this summer, officials tested a drone made by Boeing subsidiary InSitu on a wildfire in Washington states’ Olympic National Park.
“It was very successful,” Koeckeritz said. “We were able to look through very thick smoke and assist the helicopter pilots with bucket drops and see where the drops hit.”
The article states a couple of times that the sensors on the UAS can see through clouds, but I would be very surprised if that is true. (We didn’t include those sections here.) The moisture in clouds has its own heat signature which is impenetrable to the equipment on the U.S. Forest Service infrared line scanning aircraft. The sensors can detect heat through smoke, however, as long as it is not an extremely active convection column with a great deal of particulate matter, debris, or burning embers.
The video below demonstrates how the Aerosonde UAS is used on a ship.