The Report

Fighting fire with data. Drones are just part of the answer

Fighting fire with data. Drones are just part of the answer

Posting in Technology | From Issue 21 June 30, 2014

When it comes to forestry and wildland management, unmanned aircraft hold great potential. But data -- not the "bright shiny objects" that collect it -- is what firefighters really need.

On Aug. 17, 2013, an illegal campfire near Yosemite National Park sparked what would become the third largest wildfire in California history, burning 402 square miles and running up a $127 million bill before it was extinguished. Twelve days into the fire, to help Forest Service firefighters get aerial views of the landscape and better understand the status of the fire, the California National Guard provided use of an MQ-1 Predator Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

This summer, with drought wracking California and much of Nevada, and with the National Interagency Fire Center predicting above normal fire potential through September, we may witness another intense wildfire season. But remotely piloted aircraft -- also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones -- will not necessarily play a role in prevention.

That's because the Forest Service doesn't have blanket clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use drones for this purpose. Like any interested user (outside of hobbyists, who get a pass), the agency must move through the federal regulatory review process to receive this permission, called a Certificate of Authorization (COA).

In fighting the Rim Fire, the MQ-1 allowed firefighters to locate small "spot" fires more quickly than otherwise possible. In traditional firefighting operations, manned aircraft fly over large wildfires each night and use infrared cameras to survey for hotspots that might need special attention. During the Rim Fire, however, the MQ-1 helped the crew conserve resources and personnel when it showed that two of three possible hotspots detected by the infrared camera were actually false positives.

Bob Roth, Aviation Management Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service Missoula Technology and Development Center, is leading an Advisory Group to study the capabilities, limitations, costs and likely applications of using drones. One big consideration is the fact that the FAA issues each COA only for a specific make and model of unmanned aircraft, flying specific missions in a designated airspace and with specific altitudinal parameters. For those reasons, the Forest Service must determine exactly where and how it wants to use a specific drone, and then apply for right to do so.

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An MQ-1 Predator, the type used at the Rim Fire
 Maj. Stan Paregien/WikiCommons

The agency is studying myriad considerations, beyond just what type of device, carrying what mix of visual and environmental sensors, it wants to deploy to help, say, survey a wildfire.

For more granular imaging and sensing of a landscape, one might assume the UAV would be flown at low altitudes, but Roth says, "If you need to cover a large area in a short amount of time, you're going to have to fly higher and faster, and both of those will determine what kind of aircraft you fly."

Beyond working out the technical calculus, the advisory board is determining the full lifecycle costs of using drones to fight blazes. "Most people think it's just buying the hardware, but that is one and possibly the smallest cost of the program," Roth says. "Planning, training operators, maintaining the equipment, even storing it. Those all have costs."

June 30 marks one year since 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew lost their lives battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in the mountains of central Arizona: one of the darkest days in U.S. wildland firefighting history. Ultimately, it is the tactical decisions that crews make on the ground that will prevent future tragedies. And those decisions are based on data, Roth says. That data can be collected through the use of drones, but that's not the only option.

"If you look at wildland fire, we operate hundreds of manned aircraft over fires every year," he says. "We have been looking at taking advantage of unmanned aircraft sensors -- they are smaller and probably cost less than sensors that were designed for manned aircraft -- and we're looking at whether we can attach these sensors to manned aircraft."

"People seem to be infatuated by the bright shiny object of an unmanned aircraft," Roth adds. "But, really, the end user doesn't care if it's manned, unmanned, a balloon, a kite, a satellite or a bird. They just want the data."

Photo (top): Portland National Incident Management Organization

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure