Fire drones

The feature story in the June issue of Aerospace America is titled “Fire Drones”. It covers the limitations and possible benefits of using unmanned aircraft over wildfires to collect intelligence and possibly one day to haul supplies and even drop water. Below is an excerpt from the article:


…One way to [map fires, move supplies, relay communications, and drop water] without threatening piloted aircraft would be to fly unmanned aircraft over fires when darkness or smoke prevents manned aircraft from flying near a blaze. That’s what Mark Bathrick and Bradley Koeckeritz of the U.S. Interior Department are proposing. Bathrick, a former U.S. Navy aviator and test pilot, directs the department’s Aviation Services Office; Koeckeritz is the unmanned aircraft specialist there.

They note that in January, the FAA and Interior Department signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Interior to use unmanned aircraft weighing 55 pounds or less and flying below 400 feet to monitor natural resources and to conduct search and rescue missions on the agency’s land. Interior personnel can now fly unmanned aircraft after submitting a special type of COAs — Certificates of Waiver or Authorization — to the FAA, called a COA by notification. Unlike traditional COAs, the Interior Department’s enables it to file flight plans and fly immediately without waiting for the FAA to approve the plan.

Koeckeritz and Bathrick want to establish a similar policy to test unmanned or optionally piloted planes against fires. They know that it could take years before the FAA establishes rules to allow manned and unmanned aircraft to operate in the same airspace at the same time. Hence their proposal to fly unmanned at night in the mountains or through smoke to ferry food, water, fuel, chainsaws and other supplies to firefighters. Piloted planes would be nowhere around in those situations.

On a good day, when conditions permit, manned aircraft typically support firefighters for about eight hours. “With optionally piloted aircraft, we have the potential to more than double those hours,” Koeckeritz says. “If a pilot could fly the aircraft during the day and operate it remotely at other times, that could make a substantial impact on our ability to contain and eventually extinguish fires.”

One thing I’m surprised the author did not point out is the option to fly an intelligence collecting drone at an altitude above all of the other firefighting aircraft, higher than the helicopters, air tankers, lead planes, and air attack. As long as it remained in the Temporary Flight Restriction, interference with piloted aircraft would be minimized. This, I believe, is what the Predator B borrowed from the California National Guard did when it was flying for 20 hours at a time over the Rim Fire that burned 257,000 acres in and near Yosemite National Park in 2013.

These videos describe the use the Predator on the Rim Fire.

HERE is a link to a 17-second video which can’t be embedded, but it shows the operator’s screen.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to @jetcitystar.

The Predator UAS on the Rim Fire

Predator drone
The 163d Reconnaissance Wing, California Air National Guard prepares the Predator MQ1 for lift off on it’s maiden voyage from Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA) on 25 February 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sergeant Stanley L. Thompson)

(UPDATE at 6:41 p.m. MDT, March 17, 2014)

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has publicized information from two reports about the Unmanned Aerial System, the Predator, used on the Rim Fire. There is a report written by the LLC, and an AAR developed by one of the Incident Management Teams that was assigned to the fire.

One thing is clear. We need to decide on a name. UAS, drone, RPV, or UAV.


(Originally published at 12:49 p.m. MDT, March 14, 2014)

These videos describe the use of a California Air National Guard Predator unmanned aerial system on the Rim Fire, which burned 257,000 acres in and near Yosemite National Park last summer.

HERE is a link to a 17-second video which can’t be embedded, but it shows the operator’s screen.

Aircraft on the Rim Fire

MAFFS C-130 drops on Rim Fire
MAFFS C-130 drops on the Rim Fire August 29, 2013

Mike McMillan took these photos of aircraft working on the Rim Fire in California on August 29, 2013 for the U.S. Forest Service. Earlier we posted some photos of UH-60 Blackhawks and HH-60 Pave Hawks arriving at Columbia Airport to be used on the fire.

OV-10 on Rim Fire August 29, 2013
OV-10 on the Rim Fire August 29, 2013
CD-10 Rim Fire drops
DC-10- drops on the Rim Fire below Pilot Peak August 29, 2013

Predator drone being used on Rim Fire

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft
MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle

The California National Guard is operating a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle over the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park. The MQ-1 Predator is streaming real-time video down to the Incident Command Post and reportedly alerted firefighters to a flare-up they otherwise would not have immediately seen.

This is not the first time that a large Predator-type drone has been used to collect real-time imagery of wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.

Here is an excerpt from the StarTribune with more information about the current use of the National Guard’s Predator:

…While unmanned aircraft have mapped past fires, use of the Predator will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.

The plane, the size of a small Cessna, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, allowing fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire’s direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.

The drone is being flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport, both in Southern California. It generally flew over unpopulated areas on its 300-mile flight to the Rim Fire. Outside the fire area it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.

Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.

Wildfire Today has more information about the Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park that is updated daily with maps and current information.

National Guard helicopters arrive at the Rim Fire

Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire

Robert Martinez was kind enough to send us some photos he took yesterday, August 27, at Columbia Airport (map) a few miles north of Sonora, California. Army UH-60 Blackhawks and Air Guard HH-60 Pave Hawks had arrived to be briefed and refueled before they were sent on to the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, about 10 miles southeast of the airport.Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire

MAFFS videos, Rim Fire

These videos were shot by crews on MAFFS 4 and MAFFS 6 while dropping on the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in California August 18, 19, and 22. The first one has spectacular views of the fire from a vantage point seen by very few people. If you only watch one, watch the first one.

If you’re not familiar with the “Landing Gear” audio warning, it comes on automatically when the lady in the dashboard senses the terrain and thinks the crew is landing without lowering the gear. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a way to disable it while dropping retardant, but it will not be available until 2014 at the earliest.

Thanks go out to Michael