LOS ANGELES – Firefighters across the West are getting a high-tech ally in their battle against wildland flames: A remote-controlled spy plane that doesn’t mind smoke, can see in the dark and never sleeps.
Scientists have been testing whether flocks of the planes – similar to the spy drones the U.S. military flies over Iraq and Afghanistan – can help track the direction and behavior of fast-moving flames.
The experimental flight of three unmanned aerial vehicles took place this summer. The U.S. Forest Service will launch the first real-life deployment next spring. The plan calls for planes to traverse a dozen Western states, mapping real forest fires 24 hours a day.
“Unmanned aircraft have the capability to do what we call the 3-D missions – the dull, dark and dangerous missions where you don’t want to put a pilot on,” said Vince Ambrosia, research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay area, where the experiment was done.
Wildfire surveillance currently relies on pilots who fly over hot spots and fire perimeters in aircraft and helicopters outfitted with special heat-sensing cameras that see through smoke and spot fires. The cameras relay images to ground personnel who use the data to help them plot how best to confront the blaze.
Ban on night flights
The biggest shortcoming: Most planes can fly only during the day because of risks inherent in night flying. The Forest Service adopted a night-flight ban after several crashes involving firefighting airtankers were blamed on poor dusk visibility.
Forest officials have long considered using unmanned planes to patrol blazes, but only in the last decade has technology allowed miniature heat-detecting sensors to be fitted on small robotic planes.
There is plenty of ground to cover – tens of thousands of fires burn millions of acres each year.
Unmanned aerial vehicles – or UAVs as they are called – are controlled by a pilot on the ground. They look like test-kit airplanes and act like flying fire towers, relaying data via antenna or satellite.
FAA approval needed
The use of UAVs will come with restrictions. The Federal Aviation Administration must first approve pilotless planes in civilian airspace before such planes can be routinely deployed. UAV flights are permitted on a case-by-case basis if they can be flown safely alongside passenger-carrying aircraft, FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.
Within the United States, UAVs have served both science and security.
The Department of Homeland Security uses unmanned planes to patrol the seas and U.S.-Mexican border. And when Mount St. Helens was belching steam and ash last year, scientists flew a small unmanned plane into the caldera to monitor the volcanic rumbling.
Overseas, spy drones such as the Global Hawk and Predator have been used in the war against terror, spotting enemies from high up and in some cases firing laser-guided missiles.
Last month, the Forest Service tested three UAVs with 12-foot wingspans – about twice that of a bald eagle – over Moffett Field. The UAVs, which could fly as low as 1,000 feet, were equipped with thermal sensors and hovered over four deliberately set fires, beaming back almost instantaneous infrared updates.
More test flights next year
In the spring, the Forest Service plans its first night flight using UAVs to monitor fires near Fort Hunter Liggett, 250 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Next summer, the agency will team up with NASA to test the high-flying Altair, an extended-wing commercial version of the Air Force Predator B that is used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Altair, with its 86-foot wingspan, can crisscross Western states for up to 32 hours without refueling. It can reach as high as 52,000 feet and has a maximum range of about 4,200 miles.
An Altair costs upward of $1 million, while small UAVs are priced up to $100,000 each.
While UAVs are not cheap, and won’t replace piloted aircraft, they’re another set of eyes in the sky for firefighters who must chase the next fire all summer long.
“The more tools you have available in your toolbox,” said Everett Hinkley, who heads the Forest Service’s Remote Sensing Applications Center in Salt Lake City, “the better job you can do.”