Drones being added to Grand Canyon-area wildfire toolbox

A drone being used for wildfire operations, by Bill Gabbert

Above: An example of one type of drone that can be used to assist in wildfire operations. 

Wildland firefighters at Grand Canyon National Park have added drones to their toolkits, marking the latest iteration of unmanned aircraft systems’ love-hate relationship when it comes to wildfire. 

Rangers have started using drones to scout fires from above, the Grand Canyon News reported. From the article published Tuesday:

Justin Jager, interagency aviation officer for Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab and Coconino National Forests and Flagstaff and Verde Valley Area National Monuments, said the drones are utilized in conjunction with traditional methods. Operators use the devices to scout fire lines, or communicate information to other personnel in the area.

The unmanned systems aren’t replacing fixed-wing scouting planes. Rather, they’re being used to search a fire’s outer edges and providing intelligence that can help establish stronger fire lines.

Also from the Grand Canyon News: 

“We’re taking what we’re learning and creating a guide for other agencies, like BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or other national parks to create their own programs,” Jager said. “I think they can all benefit from adding this tool.”

Drones and the Grand Canyon have been in the news for other reasons of late, most recently in assisting search and rescue operations for LouAnn Merrell and her step-grandson Jackson Standefer. Both went missing in April while on a hike — the boy’s body has since been recovered, though the woman has not yet been located.

Grand Canyon National Park is the only park with its own fleet of unmanned aircraft that can be used for locating people who have gotten lost, stranded, injured or killed. Under a program that began last fall, it has five drones and four certified operators, the Associated Press reported. 

The drones are about 18 inches across and 10 inches high, with a battery life of about 20 minutes. Drone operators watch the video in real time and then analyze it again at the end of the day.

As fire season revs up, so will conversations about the crossroads of the devices and wildfire. While crews have successfully used drones for recon and to aid in igniting prescribed burns, it’s only a matter of time until a curious hobbyist — once again — flies too close to firefighting operations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come out in the past supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in their simple message to drone operators: If you fly; we can’t.

“Flying a drone near aerial firefighting aircraft doesn’t just pose a hazard to the pilots,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “When aircraft are grounded because an unmanned aircraft is in the vicinity, lives are put at greater risk.”

That didn’t matter. After a string of incidents last year, the FAA warned in a mass email to recreational drone operators that those “who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.”

Looking for more about the intersection of drones and wildfire? This dated, yet relevant, Smithsonian video below documents the use of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone in the August, 2013, Rim Fire in California.

NWCG issues protocol for incursions of drones over fires

Establishes procedure to follow if a drone is seen at a 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.

Below is the protocol. If you can’t read it, you can view the original .pdf at the NWCG website.

UAS fire Decision

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.

European Space Agency to develop regulations for the use of drones over wildfires

ViaSat Inc. today announced it is part of the consortium awarded the DeSIRE II project, a program funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) Integrated Applications Promotion (IAP) program, the European Defense Agency (EDA) and industry to define regulations and civilian usage for satellite-controlled Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) also known as drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

As part of the consortium, ViaSat is taking the lead in developing the communication, navigation and sensing (CNS) technologies for real-time RPAS command and control across Ka- and L-band satellites. ViaSat will provide an advanced satellite communications (satcom) system that includes modems for both frequency bands and modems for system gateways to demonstrate how a satcom system can lead to the safe use of RPAS in “unsegregated” or civilian airspace.

ViaSat will also help identify civilian service applications for RPAS usage such as environmental monitoring, maritime surveillance and emergency response. One application proposed by ViaSat is the effectiveness of RPAS in early warning and response of a wildfire outbreak. ViaSat in collaboration with CEREN, the French public organization that represents 14 fire brigades, will demonstrate how the DeSIRE II project can aid in data collection and transmission; identification of risk and alarm trigger; real-time video information of wildfire outbreaks; and night flights with infra-red capabilities.

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

Drone designed to carry a burning flare

Splash drone, showing a burning flare or fusee
A Splash Drone, outfitted with a burning flare or fusee spitting out hot slag and sparks.

As if wildand fire managers didn’t have enough to worry about when it comes to drones invading the air space above fires and possibly causing a mid-air collision with a firefighting aircraft, now a drone is going into production that can carry a burning emergency flare, known to firefighters as fusees.

The Splash Drone has received over $51,000 toward their $17,500 goal on Kickstarter. It is expected to begin shipping in July or August of this year.

The “Splash” part of the name is derived from the fact that it is designed to be waterproof. A video shows it being thrown into the water and then taking off. Another interesting feature is that it has a payload release mechanism, and in that same video it drops a bottle of water. We can picture a firefighter rigging it to drop water from a container, suppressing a fire that’s about three inches square.

The worrisome part is the adapter on the top into which you can insert a burning fusee. The video explains the need for that feature:

It allows you to deploy an emergency flare for 15 minutes rather than 15 seconds.

There is no release mechanism for the fusee mounted on top, but when they burn they drop hot slag that can start fires. Or, a twisted arsonist could attach a fusee to the release mechanism on the bottom, and create havoc. A person has to wonder what the dripping hot slag will do to the drone. They say it’s waterproof, but the term “fireproof” is not mentioned.

Another use for the the fusee mount could be to carry a flag. A squadron of five or more drones could then do a flag flyover before a football game or NASCAR race. Of course the first time they crash into the crowd would be the end of that style of patriotic tribute.

Spash drone burning flare
Splash drone. (Click to enlarge.)

On Kickstarter the price begins at $399 for a very basic “DIY kit” and goes all the way up to $1,999 for an assembled drone with a bunch of accessories and a “personal 6-hour flight lesson”.

Small unmanned quad copter aids Australian firefighters

There is no question that Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) could provide wildland firefighters with valuable real time intelligence. The biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is how to safely integrate them into the airspace above a fire. For incidents with a Temporary Flight Restriction could they be assigned an altitude above all other firefighting aircraft, or should they be restricted to night operations when no other aircraft are working on the fire?

Firefighters in Western Australia have started to use an Indago UAS built by Lockheed Martin. Today the company released information about how it is being utilized.


Western Australia’s Emergency Services Commissioner called upon Lockheed Martin’s Indago quad copterto assist with efforts to contain and extinguish a fire that had the potential to threaten lives and property.

In its first real-world firefighting tasking, the aircraft flew over the live fire and provided real-time intelligence to the Planning and Incident Management team. The Indago was able to provide information on the location of the fire edge, the intensity and location of hotspots, as well as identify people and assets at risk through smoke. The Indago also assessed damage and transmitted real-time images of activities occurring on the ground.

“After Indago’s insertion into our firefighting operations, an estimated 100 homes were saved,” said Wayne Gregson, Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner. “The Indago provided a critical capability while the manned aircraft were grounded at nightfall, and increased our ground operators’ situational awareness.”

For more than 80 years, manned aircraft have been employed in support of ground firefighting operations; currently, aircraft support is available to ground firefighters in Australia for approximately 12-14 hours per day during daylight hours only.

“The Indago can work to fight fires and provide information to operations day and night without risking a life,” said Dan Spoor, vice president of Aviation and Unmanned Systems at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training business. “This real world application signifies the potential for using unmanned systems to augment manned firefighting operations, doubling the amount of time for fire suppression.”

The Indago’s industry-leading flight time and EO/IR gimbaled imager provides high quality data and enhanced situational awareness for operators to make real-time decisions. Indago is capable of providing tactical situational awareness and geo-location, increasing its value in missions such as firefighting.

“The Indago has shown its ability to operate in all weather and visibility conditions,” said Tim Hand, Chief UAV Controller at Heliwest. “Since we began using it in November 2014, it has performed well in temperatures ranging from -12 degrees to 112 degrees; rain to snow; and smoke or dust.”

The Heliwest Group, which is providing aircraft and services in support of the firefighting mission, first took delivery of the Indago in November 2014; since then, Heliwest has flown the Indago more than 200 hours in support of multiple civil operations including firefighting, task inspections and surveying.

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

More regulations for drones on the way

The United States and Australian governments will be developing additional regulations for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drones. With the entry price of around $500 without a camera, the number of these things in the air is increasing substantially. It is a pretty safe bet that many people found one under their Christmas tree this year. Drones have already created problems on wildfires in both countries.

The PBS News Hour recently covered the subject, indicating that Congress will develop their own rules, in lieu of the FAA’s failure to develop anything substantial so far:

… “That appears to be what some key lawmakers have in mind. “We in Congress are very interested in UAS,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at a hearing this month, referring to unmanned aerial systems, or drones. “We understand UAS are an exciting technology with the potential to transform parts of our economy. … It is our responsibility to take a close look.”

One of the committee’s first priorities next year is writing legislation to reauthorize FAA programs and overhaul aviation policy. The bill is expected to include directions from lawmakers on how to integrate drones into the nation’s aviation system. The last reauthorization bill, passed in 2012, directed the agency to integrate drones by Sept. 30, 2015, but it’s clear the FAA will miss that deadline.”…

Now Congress is going to provide directions on how to operate UAS’s in the National Airspace …

A scary thought — Congress developing aviation rules.

Below are excerpts from Queensland Country Life about how Australia plans to deal with the proliferation of UAS:

AUSTRALIA is set to have among the world’s toughest rules on drones after the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA) rewrites its regulations in the new year.

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said the “huge growth” in popularity of the flying “unmanned aerial vehicles” – which are helicopter-like craft, with GPS and cameras – meant regulations had to be “updated”.

At the moment drones for commercial use by police, fire services, aerial photographers and in some agricultural settings are regulated by CASA. Commercial users – there are 180 in Australia, a jump on only 34 in 2013 – need a licence. But recreational users do not.

Mr Gibson said drones must be kept more than 30 metres away from other people and must not be flown over crowds of people at beaches or sporting events.

Drones can only be operated in daylight where the operator can see them, should be kept more than 5 kilometres from airports and be flown below 121 metres.

Infringement notices can be issued if these regulations are broken. Prosecutions can be enforced if anyone is injured.

Late last year CASA struck a deal with a big drone manufacturer, DJI Phantom, in China, to insert written guidelines in the boxes. This follows incidents of drones being flown over bushfires and crime scenes to capture video and photographs. In October 2013 a drone flew over a bushfire near Sydney, forcing emergency services to ground firefighting aircraft.

A man who flew a drone at the scene of a siege at Altona North in Victoria two weeks ago will be fined $850. The drone crashed into a power line and fell, nearly hitting a police officer. In June a drone narrowly missed a rescue helicopter in Newcastle. It was flying at nearly 300 metres.

We heard from Dick who said:

Retired USFS Smokejumper and Pilot Willis Curdy from Missoula starts Monday [January 5, 2015] as a member of the Montana House. He’ll introduce legislation limiting drones.

Here is an excerpt from an article at Fire Aviation last summer:

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.

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