IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — The U.S. Forest Service is looking to unmanned aircraftas a way to track forest fires while keeping firefighters safe. Tracking the location of a forest fire is a crucial part of battling the blaze.Traditionally, fire managers have relied on pilots flying over the flames atnight, shooting pictures using heat-sensitive cameras. Mission managers thenassign tasks based on the photos. But there are situations that are too dangerous for human pilots — such as lowvisibility caused by a smoky fire. So when the U.S. Forest Service learned ofthe tests that researchers at the Idaho National Engineering and EnvironmentalLaboratory were doing on small, cheaper unmanned aerial vehicles, they jumped onboard. “We’re always looking for new and better ways to accomplish things,”said Everett Hinkley, who works for the Forest Service’s Remote SensingApplications Center. The Forest Service is planning to try out a few with heat-sensing cameras on afire this spring or summer somewhere in Montana, Hinkley said. Some tests done at the laboratory last year show that as many as five of thesmall, unmanned aircraft can be monitored by a single operator. “It’s the advent of cheap computing technologies and cheap sensors that hasmade these affordable. We couldn’t have done it three or four years ago,”said Scott Bauer, INEEL’s project manager. The planes are already used for national security surveillance, and can beadapted for a variety of tasks, depending on the instruments they take on board,he said. The key has been making them affordable, which also reduces the risk of losingone, so that they can be used by clients with smaller pocketbooks, Bauer said. The laboratory’s work in improving the computer controls and sensors alsoattracted the attention of NASA, which has been working for more than 10 yearson improving and standardizing unmanned aerial vehicles. NASA did its own tests last year when it flew an unmanned aerial vehicleequipped with a camera over small fires set in drums. The planes were able tosend back real-time video using a satellite connection, said Alan Brown, a NASAspokesman. NASA also is helping the Federal Aviation Administration develop guidelines thatwould assure the vehicles can be used without being a threat to manned aircraftor people on the ground. The problem today is that the small aerial vehicles can be invisible to otherplanes or air traffic controllers on the ground, Brown said. “They need a see-and-avoidance system,” he said, adding the vehiclesalso need technologies that will allow the craft to operate independently butpredictably.