Honda designs an autonomous ATV to carry equipment for wildland firefighters

Honda Autonomous firefighter vehicle
Screengrab from the video

In the fall of 2018, the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE), along with wildland firefighters from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) worked with Honda in testing their Autonomous Work Vehicle in wildland firefighting support scenarios.

Located at the site of the Lake Christine fire, a destructive wildfire that took place the summer of 2018 in Eagle County, Colorado- CoE, DFPC and Honda tested the work vehicles using realistic scenarios that occur during a wildfire. The team focused on utilizing the vehicle to support wildland operations with the goal of enhancing safety and effectiveness. Three missions were tested including initial attack support for dismounted firefighters, support of active fireline development, and autonomous deployment of a communications repeater to a remote site.  This evaluation was performed at the Lake Christine fire site after the fire was fully contained and controlled. The initial results of the tests were promising and the CoE looks forward to working with Honda to further this mission.

Honda debuted the vehicle at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.  At CES 2019, this week, Honda and the CoE are sharing some results of that testing. While further development is required before the device can be used on active wildfires, the potential of an autonomous vehicle is clear.

Replanting a burned forest with a swarm of drones

A startup company is building a drone system to spray pesticides and replant trees

DroneSeed drone herbicide fire reseed
A DroneSeed drone applying a herbicide. Screenshot from DroneSeed video.

(This article was first published on Fire Aviation)

Replanting trees after a wildfire or logging operation is an extremely labor intensive and expensive task. Carrying a bag of seedlings and using a dibble bar or shovel across steep debris-covered terrain can wear out a human.

A new company, DroneSeed, has a solution. Use machines. They are designing a system around a swarm of drones that can plant tree seeds in places where they have a decent chance of survival. First they survey the area with a drone using lidar and a multispectral camera to map the terrain and the vegetation. Software then identifies the areas that have invasive species or other plants the landowner wants to eliminate and then a drone applies herbicide to only the patches that need it, rather than dumping  pesticide over the entire landscape.

According to an article at TechCrunch, DroneSeed is still fine tuning the seed dispersing system, but the next step is to use artificial intelligence to sort through the mapping data to find microsites where a dropped seed is most likely to germinate.

Using a concept that has been around for a long time, they will coat the seeds with substances that will enhance its survival chances. The article explained that the company is very reticent to detail exactly what will be applied to the seed. In agriculture, seeds are often coated with polymers, fertilizers, or fungicides.  Polymers can improve the flowability and plantability — if the weather is hot and humid, cool and damp, or dry — to get consistent seed drop.

One issue DroneSeed appears to be concentrating on is deterring animals from eating or removing the seeds. They are looking at adding capsaicin, a chili pepper extract, to the coating. A fertilizer, if included, would wash off during a rain and then supply nutrients to the seed as it germinates.

The drones they are using are off the shelf aircraft that DroneSeed guts and converts into a machine that fits their missions. They are referred to as “heavy lift” drones since they weigh more than the 55-pound maximum for more conventional drones. The FAA limits heavy lifts to 115 pounds. The company says they are the first and only company the FAA has approved to use drone swarms to dispense agricultural payloads (fertilizers, herbicides, and water).

The FAA classifies this exception as “precedent setting”, referring to the exceptional lengths DroneSeed has gone to prove out its ability to scale operations to larger payloads for multiple concurrent flights.

As you can see in the video below, the drones are used in swarms, with five to six drones being able to equal the production of one helicopter when spraying herbicides.

DroneSeed has worked for three of the five largest timber companies since 2017 spraying herbicides, but they are just getting into the tree seeding game. They missed the prime planting season this year but were able to apply seeds to a few small sites and should be in a good position next year to show off their results.

Technology increasingly being used by firefighters in Oregon

camera detect wildfire Oregon
Cameras are used to detect wildland fires in a detection center in Oregon.

(Originally published at 9:51 p.m. PDT October 13, 2018)

Wildland firefighters in Oregon and other locations are increasingly using technology to streamline dispatching, map fires, communicate, detect fires, and enhance situational awareness. An article at the Mail Tribune covers advances in fire detection, drones, mapping, and satellite imagery. Below are two excerpts.

…It’s called the detection center, and ODF employees who man its viewing stations are constantly on the lookout for just-sparked wildfires.

“Typically, what we’re looking for are slight movements,” [Chris] James says while gesturing at a bank of monitors that displays multiple views of the region’s hazy, forested landscape.

Each monitor contains four pictures that rotate through on the screens and are spaced over time, giving ODF workers the ability to see fires.

“We’re looking at those pictures for any sign that we don’t recognize, that we haven’t seen before, and that keys us up on smoke,” says James, a detection center supervisor.

The Bureau of Land Management utilized drone technology for a variety of purposes, including infrared heat detection, mapping, and scouting certain areas of terrain for possible fire lines. Unrelated to surveillance — but no less interesting — the agency utilized some of the unmanned aircraft to haul in supplies. The drones also were used for burnout purposes, dropping ping pong balls … which triggered a chemical reaction that ignited the plastic spheres.

We checked with Gil Dustin who leads the Bureau of Land Management Unmanned Aircraft Systems program. He said the federal land management agencies have not used drones to haul supplies. The aircraft they have been flying can only carry a few pounds at most. One day they may be resupplying firefighters with drinking water, food, fire hose, pumps, and chain saw fuel, but we are not there yet.

Mr. Dustin said years down the road helibases are going to look very different compared to what we are seeing today.

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

Drone flying at night detects spot fire

Firefighters were alerted, found it and put it out

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.

Colorado developing drone system to enhance situational awareness

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.

Colorado's Pilatus PC12 N327F
“https://wildfiretoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/PilatusPC12.jpg”> One of the two State of Colorado’s Pilatus PC12’s, was photographed in March of 2016 in Sacramento.[/captio
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.

Drone crash starts fire in Oregon

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

(Originally published at 5:10 p.m. PDT 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 compact 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 if they are 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.