Unmanned aerial vehicles considered for monitoring fires in Australia

With numerous large fires burning in Australia, there has been discussion about the practicality of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to detect and monitor fires. In an article at Wired, Thomas Duff of the University of Melbourne’s Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, which developed the Phoenix RapidFire bushfire simulator said he believes…

…the vast amount of data gathered by drones could be sent to base via data links and potentially provide far more accurate, real-time predictions of where a fire will spread and when.

NASA is already using drones to study hurricane patterns as part of its Global Hawk project, and it would be no great leap to do the same thing in Australia.

“From an aircraft point of view and a sensing point of view the technology is there,” said Duncan Campbell, head of the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation. Campbell is currently working on embedding drones with smart sensors that prevent them from colliding with aircraft. “The big issue is the use of the airspace and that comes down to regulatory issues.” Nevertheless, he predicts we’ll see them in action over Australian skies within two years. However, we won’t be seeing pricey military grade versions:

“What we’re more likely to see in Australia are the smaller machines in the order of a few 100kg, flying a lot lower.”

The last time we wrote about Australia’s desire to buy large drones was in March, 2009, when they cancelled plans to buy some Global Hawks with an announced objective being surveillance of the waters surrounding the country. Since then the government has gone back and forth several times on buying or not buying these aircraft. The latest, according to Australia’s ABC News in September, 2012, is that the the military wants seven large UAVs flying by 2019. The preferred option is a new, maritime surveillance version of the Global Hawk – the MQ4C Triton with a total cost of $2 billion to $3 billion.

 

Thanks go out to Dick

MikroKopter

One day unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are going to be ubiquitous around wildfires, if we can work out the FAA and flight coordination issues.

A German company is now mass producing kits for the “MikroKopter” demonstrated in the video below. The kit for just the basic aircraft sells for about $1,140 at today’s currency exchange rate. It can be accessorized with a real time video camera with downlink capabilities, a still camera, a GPS receiver, an altitude sensor, a Bluetooth receiver and transmitter, a camera mount, and other items.

If equipped with GPS, the aircraft can be ordered to hover at its present location, or to “come home” to the spot where the motors were turned on. It can even be controlled and monitored with an Android-powered cell phone, but a conventional radio-control unit works better. It has a flight time of 36 minutes and can carry a payload of up to 2.2 pounds.

I want one.

Thanks Jim

Series of articles about wildfire, by Miller-McCune

The Miller-McCune web site has started a five-part series about wildfire.

Part I: THE FIRES DOWN BELOW: ‘LOOK-DOWN’ TECHNOLOGY
Part II: UNDERSTANDING WILDFIRE BEHAVIOR AND PREDICTING ITS SPREAD
Part III: WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING ON U.S. FIRELINES
Part IV: CATCHING WILDFIRE ARSONISTS RED-HANDED
Part V: SMART SOLUTIONS GOING FORWARD

Here is a brief excerpt from Part 1, which covers at length many different options and technologies for collecting and distributing real-time or near-real time intelligence about going fires.

The Viz Lab is a large, dimly lit, war room dominated by huge, computer-generated maps projected onto dark walls. Its tool kit includes an array of links to information and imaging feeds gathered by satellites, airplanes, unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) and helicopters from sources like NASA and Google Maps. The lab is bent on delivering real-time (or pretty darned close) computer mapping and imaging to a wildfire’s first responders so they’ll know just what the blaze is doing, where and when.

Data fusion is the name of the game at the San Diego State University’s Immersive Visualization Center — layering sophisticated weather, atmospheric, smoke and fire data and images onto, say, a topographical Google Earth map. It provides an illuminating picture for emergency operations chiefs who urgently need to pinpoint trouble spots and interpret fast-changing developments.

Once, fire perimeters were indicated by simple black lines on old-fashioned land maps — best guesses made from the field without benefit even of GPS. Now, satellites or aircraft use “look down” technology to create 3-D topographical images of what lies below dark, billowing smoke. Tools distinguish live from burned vegetation and show in various colors rapidly updated information on a blaze’s “hot spots” and accelerating or subsiding dangers.

“It’s absolutely dramatically more useful,” explained Eric Frost, co-director of the Viz Lab.

The Viz Lab normally focuses on geographic information systems research for homeland security and disaster relief. But it also proactively tracks everything from brush fires on its doorstep to natural disasters worldwide. Last February, for example, it helped map wildfires in Australia that killed 173 people. “It takes less than half a second to go from here to Australia on fiber optics,” Frost noted.

Here is a video about an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, being developed by San Diego State University. The researchers have been working with firefighters in an attempt to show them its usefulness on fires.

(THE VIDEO IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE)

Patent application for a disposable air tanker

John A. Hoffman, who appears to be associated with Fire Termination Equipment, Inc., has applied for a U. S. Patent for a very different type of air tanker. This air tanker would be an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that would be transported by a mother ship and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground, and after dropping retardant on the fire, would land to reload, or might be a single use aircraft and would be “destroyed in the release step”. In the latter case the UAV would be “possibly constructed of frangible material so as to crash into the fire area”.

The patent application includes two options for transporting one or more UAVs to the fire area.

  1. Externally mounted to the aircraft to the “underbelly, side of the transport aircraft, or the like”.
  2. “The present invention also contemplates that one or more UAVs can be placed within the transport aircraft, and either released from a rear exit, such as a B-727 having a rear opening door, or ejected from a side interface wherein the transport aircraft includes side-access doors fitted with a mechanism including rails or the like to move in position the UAV from inside of the transport aircraft to outside of the transport aircraft for launch or jettison.”

If this invention ever sees the light of day, which is EXTREMELY DOUBTFUL, firefighters will see air tankers crashing into the ground around them as the aircraft are “destroyed in the release step”. And this would be a benefit to firefighters, the public, and the environment how, exactly? I can’t even imagine what the cost per drop would be of a system like this. And then there are the indirect costs of removing the wreckage, repairing the environmental damage, and payment of the death benefits to the families of any firefighters that might be killed by the crashing aircraft.

As we said earlier, the inventor, Mr. Hoffman, appears to be associated with Fire Termination Equipment, Inc., according to the patent application. The company has an unusual and very vague idea to develop a Rapid Aerial Inferno Neutralization System (RAIN) that, according to the web site:

…delivers massive payloads (of artificial rain) to fires with surgical precision, and it can be deployed 24/7 and in any weather, including winds and smoke.

This RAIN system may be the same one that is described in the patent application, but the web site offers no details about how it would work. The site does have a some information about experiments conducted with small UAVs.

We put these concepts into our “lame-ass ideas” category.

Wildfire news, November 24

Los Angeles County Fire Chief announces retirement.

P. Michael Freeman today announced that he will be retiring in March, 2010. Chief Freeman has served as Fire Chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department LACFD for 21 years.

On November 18 the LADFD issued a report about the Station fire that lobbed some criticism towards the U. S. Forest Service for their management of wildland fires.

NASA’s Predator UAV flies burn sites in California

NASA provided this information in a press release:

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MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – NASA’s remotely piloted Predator B aircraft, named Ikhana, recently conducted post-burn assessments of two Southern California wildfire sites, the Piute Fire in Kern County and the Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest. Ikhana, an unmanned aircraft equipped with an infrared imaging sensor, completed a seven-hour imaging flight on Nov. 19, 2009 from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The Autonomous Modular Scanner, developed by NASA’s Ames ResearchCenter, Moffett Field, Calif., was carried in a pod under the aircraft’s wing. The scanner operates like a digital camera with specialized filters to detect light energy at visible, infrared and thermal wavelengths.

The scanner operated with a new photo mosaic capability requested by the U.S.Forest Service. A photo mosaic provides easier interpretation for the end user, which in the case of an active wildfire, is the fire incident commander.

Traveling northwest of NASA Dryden, the aircraft flew several data collectionroutes over the area burned by the month-long Piute Fire in Kern County that grew to 37,026 acres before it was contained in July 2008. The burn area is located in the Sequoia National Forest and on Bureau of Land Management public land near Lake Isabella.

Ikhana then traveled southeast to fly image collection routes over the arson-caused Station Fire. It burned more than 160,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest northeast of Los Angeles after being ignited on Aug. 26, 2009. The scanner collected images that will indicate the severity of devastation within the fire area. Another use of the images is for the U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation, or BAER.

The Forest Service uses BAER to reduce further damage to land made unstable by fires, rather than replace what is burned. The BAER data are derived using multi-spectral data available from the Autonomous Modular Scanner on the aircraft. The processes can be changed mid-mission to enable improved collection of critical information, either in mapping active fires or assessing post-burn severity.

The post-burn images collected by the scanner were transmitted through a communications satellite to NASA Ames, where the images were superimposed over Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth maps to better visualize the locations. The images then were made available to the Forest Service for initial assessment of the damage caused by the fires and rehabilitation required.

Scientists prove mega-droughts occurred

By studying mineral deposits in caves, scientists have proved that extended droughts, or “mega-droughts” have occurred hundreds of years ago. The researchers took core samples of deposits left by dripping water in caves, and studied them much like scientists study tree rings to determine fire history.

Their analysis in caves in the Sierra Nevada in California determined that one of the droughts they detected lasted 140-years around the year 1100. The pattern of droughts seems to be associated with rapid climate warming.

Bushfires wreaking havoc in Australia

From The Trumpet:

Thousands of homes are threatened by huge wildfires sweeping across eastern Australia. Record temperatures and persistent winds have combined to make this the worst bushfire threat in 100 years in New South Wales, just months after the country’s most devastating wildfire disaster to date.

The record heat has kindled fears of a repeat of February’s cataclysmic fires in Victoria that killed 173 people and consumed more than 2,000 homes. The conditions have prompted authorities to issue the first “catastrophic” or “Code Red” alert—a new level of warning introduced since the deadly Black Saturday fires in February—for parts of New South Wales and South Australia.

“The very hot temperatures we’ve seen across New South Wales right throughout this last week are simply breaking hundred-year records,” said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

In a Code Red warning, residents cannot be forcibly evacuated, but are strongly advised to leave their property because of the dire risk of death, injury and destruction.

Fire expert Kevin Tolhurst said, “What we saw on (Black Saturday) was an extraordinary day from a weather point of view. We are starting to see those sort of days more frequently.”

Bill introduced in Senate to aid in control of pine beetles

From KPVI news:

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall says the insect infestation killing millions of pine trees in the West is 1 of the region’s “biggest natural disasters.”

The Colorado Democrat said Monday he has introduced a bill to give forest managers more ways to respond.

The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, would allow the U.S. Forest Service to identify high-priority areas and expedite analysis of proposed treatments.

More than 2.5 million acres of pine trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming have been killed by tiny beetles that burrow under the bark.

Forest managers say the outbreak poses wildfire and public safety risks.

A national management team will help the Forest Service coordinate responses to the outbreak.

As we reported on November 11, one of the NIMO teams has been activated to assist in battling beetles.

Fewer inmates could hamper fire suppression in California

The state of California is under a court order to reduce their prison population by 40,000 people, from 150,000 to 110,000. In order to comply, Governor Schwarzenegger is seeking legislation to implement alternatives to state incarceration, such as house arrest or utilizing local jails.

A reduction of this size in low risk inmates will mean there will be fewer prisoners available to staff the state’s Type 2 inmate crews. When working on a fire an inmate earns $1 per hour, much less than a CalFire employee, so replacing the crews with CalFire firefighters is not an option in a state with major financial problems.

The reason the court ordered a reduction in the prison population was to improve the treatment of physically and mentally ill inmates. They labeled the care so poor that it violates an inmate’s constitutional rights.