USA– Timely assistance was desperately needed when the Esperanza wildfire eruptedin Southern California last month. Moving quickly, the FAA used a new rapidresponse process to help deploy a remotely piloted aircraft, providing criticalassistance in attacking the blaze.
Firefighting is not a job usually associated with the FAA, but theorganizations response showed it was admirably up to the task.
As the deadly wildfire worsened, NASA requested FAAs help in using an AltairUnmanned Aircraft System to bring back information about the blaze. According toArdyth Williams, ATO manager for unmanned aircraft systems, the UAS was quicklycleared for flight via an improved process designed to expedite suchemergency requests.
Given the seriousness of the fire which tragically claimed the lives of fivefirefighters we wanted to pull out all the stops, Williams stressed.
Without a pilot on board, UASs cant meet see and avoid requirements foroperating in the National Airspace System. If the federal government needs touse a UAS for national security or emergency operations, the FAA has to supply acertificate of waiver or authorization. Obtaining the certificate usually takesabout 60 days.
But following the Katrina disaster, the FAA realized the need for a quickerwaiver process for emergency response.
We did not have a mechanism that would allow them [UASs] to assist indisaster relief missions, Williams explained. The FAA needed to find a wayto be responsive to this use while at the same time recognizing that the safetyof the NAS is the agencys No.1 priority.
The Altair Unmanned Aircraft System built and operated by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, Calif., was prepared to fly in less than 24 hours. Photo: FAA Working with ATO Systems Operations Security, FAA Aircraft CertificationServices, NORAD, U.S. Northern Command and the Joint Force Air ComponentCommander, Williams helped develop an authorization process for specific use ofAltair UASs that allows these drones to respond in a timely manner to disasters.A certificate of authorization can now be approved in a matter of hours, insteadof 60 days, for their use in disaster relief.
What we have done is provide a protocol that allows sophisticated UASs to beused and to segregate them from manned aircraft used in disaster relief efforts,said Williams.
That protocol, worked out in the spring, laid the foundation for a quickresponse to NASAs request to use the Altair in last months Californiafirefighting effort.
NASA already had an Altair ready to go, pre-fitted with sensors to collectreal-time, visible and infrared data. When they requested a certificate ofauthorization for its use in the particular fire region, the FAA got it approvedwithin hours.
We responded quickly to the call for action, Williams proudly points out.We took the template that allows us to respond in hours, not 60 days, andapplied it to this operation. We had a system in place to get the aircraftairborne as quickly as possible.
The Esperanza fire, whipped by powerful Santa Ana winds, spread across 40,200acres, or roughly 62 square miles. From an altitude of 43,000 feet, theAltairs sensor collected and sent 100 images and more than 20 data filescontaining the location of the fire perimeter.
From an altitude of 43,000 feet, the wildfire sensor collected and sent 100 images and more than 20 data files containing the location of the fire perimeter over a 16-hour period on October 28 and 29. Photo: Aero-News Network, Inc and NOAA. The information, delivered in real time through a satellite communications link,was used by firefighting authorities to map fire behavior and ensure resourceswere directed to the most important areas.
Controllers maintained communication with all manned aircraft operating in thetemporary flight restriction, while also monitoring the path of the UAS andtalking to its ground-based pilot. The airspace in which the Altair was flyinghad to be carefully controlled because the aircraft lacks a see and avoidcapability.
At one point in its mission the Altair lost a communication link with airtraffic control due to equipment freezing at very high altitude. Although thisforced a contingency procedure that brought the aircraft back, the FAA actedquickly in helping repair the problem, testing the communication link, andgetting the Altair back into the firefight.