new firefighting plane

NASA unveils new high-tech firefighting plane

4 September  2001

LOS ANGELES — NASA scientists Tuesday unveiled what they called the next generation of firefighting technology: a robot plane able to circle for up to 24 hours over wildfires, beamingvideo images and information back to computers by satellite. 
The Altus II unmanned plane uses cutting edge technology usually seen in military aircraft,giving fire crews a real-time view of fires that can burn over hundreds of thousands of acres.The plane could map dozens of fires and topographical features in a day, never endangeringa pilot. 
NASA Project scientist Steve Wegener said the technology would catapult fire crews into anew era in firefighting. 
“Right now they have an infrared system that is using very overloaded and old technology,”he said.  “They have maybe three planes go up and take a few pictures in the evening, getting two orthree fires at the most. Then they have to land and hand a piece of paper to a runner to takeit out to the fire camp. It’s very labor intensive.”  NASA unveiled the Altus II, developed and built with privately owned General Atomics
Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, California, during a fire season in which wildfiresraged across much of the western United States and at least two people died flying overwildfires.  The plane is a variant of the Predator unmanned surveillance aircraft manufactured byGeneral Atomics and used by the U.S. Air Force.  “These unmanned (aircraft) are really pretty special because they can be put in dangeroussituations and not put a pilot at risk,” Wegener said. “Firefighting is dangerous. If we canmake it less dangerous that’s a great step all around.” 
He said the plane sends thermal imagery through a satellite link and onto the Internet,where firefighters can access it to make minute-by-minute decisions.  “They will have a real-time product to aid them in disaster management,” he said. “We couldalso do floods, earthquakes and pollution events. What we’re providing is a snapshot withinminutes of taking the imagery.” “And the exciting part of this is that it’s a geo-registered image,” Wegener said. “The imageis built up in proportion to lay exactly over a map with exact known locations of every pixelthat puts accurate imagery in the hands of disaster managers, who can trust it moveresources around.” Wegener said the Altus II, which is controlled by pilots on the ground, still needed to clear afew hurdles, including regulatory issues with the Federal Aviation Administration. The plane is expected to fly a demonstration mission for firefighting officials this week in theCalifornia desert. 
Copyright 2001, Reuters
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