Drone flying at night detects spot fire

Firefighters were alerted, found it and put it out

drone insitu

Above: Screenshot from the Department of the Interior video below.

(Originally published on Fire Aviation, August 15, 2018)

In 2010 I wrote an article on Wildfire Today about the two military surplus Cobra helicopters the U.S. Forest Service operates. The ships are still with the agency and are used on fires when the electronic systems are working.

These “Firewatch Cobras” have infrared sensors that can detect heat from fires. There is video in the article in which the pilot directs firefighters on the ground to a hot spot near the line on the Jesusita fire near Santa Barbara on May 12, 2009. The heat source is so small that the firefighters walked past it and over it several times, but the pilot could easily see it using the infrared equipment.

That video was filmed during daylight hours. Eight years later we now have the ability to have an unmanned aerial vehicle with sophisticated sensors orbit continuously over a fire, day and night, for 18 to 20 hours depending on the weight of its payload. If an incident management team on a fire activates a couple of these using the recently awarded Call When Needed contract, firefighters can have greatly enhanced situational awareness with near real time video.

Insitu was one of four companies that won CWN contracts in May. On the Taylor Fire in southwest Oregon on August 5, firefighters requested that the company’s ScanEagle aircraft monitor an overnight burn operation they were conducting along a ridge top road. As it orbited in the darkness at 8,500 feet, the sensors and the pilot detected a spot fire about 100 feet outside the fireline in the “green” unburned area.

The pilot talked directly with firefighters in an engine, telling them where it was.

Engine 66 stop there, spot fire is out your passenger door, 100 feet.

As you can see in the video below, the firefighters, it looked like at least three of them, searched the area and found the spot fire, which they said was about one foot square.

Depending on your taste in music, you will either want to turn up the sound in the video, or turn it off. I doubt if there’s any middle ground. There is no narration, so you won’t miss anything with the sound off.


The ScanEagle was launched from and recovered within the Temporary Flight Restriction over the fire. It was flown beyond visual line of sight in accordance with the 2015 FAA/Department of the Interior Memorandum of Understanding.

This is not the first time a drone has detected a spot fire during conditions when most aircraft are unable to fly. In 2017 on the Umpqua North Fire Complex in Southern Oregon a drone found a spot fire when smoke reduced the visibility to only 100 feet, keeping all other aircraft on the ground.

We have often written about the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing in real time the location of the fire and the location of personnel. Many assumed the location of the fire would be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. But apparently the technology, suitable and practical enough to be used on a wildfire, is on a CWN contract.  BOOM!

The location of firefighters can also be solved. The technology exists now. Many agencies are using various systems, especially metropolitan law enforcement and fire organizations, but the federal land management agencies and most of the larger state fire organizations are dragging their feet. Earlier this year CAL FIRE took a step in the right direction when they issued a contract to provide technology in 1,200 state-owned vehicles that will facilitate mission critical data communications over a variety of networks (broadband, narrowband and satellite). This will include tracking the location of firefighting vehicles, but probably not dismounted personnel.

Complex terrain is one of the difficulties in continuously tracking the location of resources on a wildland fire, but there are ways to get around this, including putting radio repeaters in drones, perhaps the same one that is tracking the fire.

One of these days, drones will be on automatic dispatch along with engines, crews, and other aircraft. I know — a lot of deconflicting of aircraft has to be worked out, but it WILL happen.

Insitu UAS map fires
Insitu ScanEagle. Insitu photo.
Insitu UAS map fires
Insitu ScanEagle. Insitu photo.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

6 thoughts on “Drone flying at night detects spot fire”

  1. Could the UAV have given the engine crew a lat long?

    Crew could have hiked in using a hand held GPS allowing the UAV to resume patrol.

    This is very interesting use of technology.

  2. We have the technology, and by god have figured out how to use it! Great story. Using drones to track resources can give operations real time locations and get them to real or suspected issues in a timely manner.

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