Robot plane holds promise for warning of danger and fighting wildfires
Riverside, CA, USA — In its first test over a wildfire, an unmanned airplane hovered high above the Esperanza Fire for 16 hours and beamed back images of the flames as they chewed through the ruggedterrain.
Length: 36 feet
Wingspan: 86 feet
Cost: $10 million to $12 million Equipped with sensors and thermal-imaging capability, the Altair aircraft sent images of flare-ups and the leading edge of the fire to firefighting strategists on the ground within five to 20 minutes, said Everett Hinkley, the Utah-based project leader for the U.S. Forest Service. It would have taken at least an hour to download the same images captured by helicopters equipped with global positioning systems.
The direct benefits of the inaugural flight were minimal because the plane didn’t take off until the third day of the arson-caused firestorm that began Oct. 26 near Cabazon. By then, the winds had abated and firefighters were gaining control of the blaze that killed five firefighters and destroyed 39 homes in the San Jacinto mountains.
But, fire officials said the demonstration offered a glimpse of how unmanned technology might be added to the firefighting arsenal.
The Altair is a high-altitude version of General Atomic’s Predator planes, used by the military for surveillance in Afghanistan, the Middle East and other war zones. The turbo-prop, rear-engine plane — 36 feet long with an 86-foot wingspan — is designed to help not only with wildfires, but also to track air pollution and issue early warnings of potentially deadly mudslides.
The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services asked NASA and the U.S. Forest Service to fly the Altair over Riverside County.
THE CREW: Co-pilot Chris Stein, left, and pilot Jason McDermott control the Altair during a demonstration flight in Palmdale.
Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman for the state agency, said air reconnaissance was one of the areas identified for improvement after major blazes hit Southern California in 2003, including the 90,000-acre Old Fire that destroyed 940 homes in and below the San Bernardino mountains.
“We want folks on the ground to get better information so they can get a handle on the fire much quicker,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration quickly cleared the flight for national airspace using a process adopted after Hurricane Katrina to expedite emergency requests for natural disasters.
See and Avoid
Unlike traditional aircraft, the drones can fly for longer periods, at night and high above the blinding smoke and gusty winds that can make flying dangerous at lower altitudes, Hinkley said.
THE MISSION: The Altair quickly beamed images of the Esperanza Fire. “We want folks on the ground to get better information so they can get a handle on the fire much quicker,” said state spokesman Eric Lamoureux.
But without a pilot on board, the Altair can’t meet the FAA’s “see and avoid” requirements for national airspace even though the plane is backed up remotely by pilots sitting in a Mojave Desert facility owned by its builder, San Diego-based General Atomics.
Instead, a chase plane acted as the “eyes” of the Altair until it reached restricted airspace where it spiraled up to 43,000 feet, high above any commercial planes taking off or landing in Southern California, said Ardyth Williams, the FAA’s air traffic manager for unmanned aircraft systems.
Air traffic controllers in Palmdale kept a close watch on the Altair and the busy skies to make sure it didn’t come near other airplanes, Williams said.
There is only one Altair. It cost $10 million to $12 million to build, said General Atomics spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz.
Esperanza was the first live wildfire for a fully equipped Altair mission. Training exercises by the U.S. Forest Service and NASA were done earlier in October over controlled burns in Yosemite National Park and other parts of Central California. A mapping mission off the Alaskan coast prompted the governor there to ask that the plane fly over a wildfire, but it was not equipped with the correct sensors for that purpose, Hinkley said.
Hinkley said the flight over the Esperanza Fire didn’t cost anything because there were hours remaining in NASA’s 120-hour, $1.3 million contract with General Atomics from the training missions. Vince Ambrosia, who works at NASA Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, estimated it would have cost about $3,000 per hour for the Esperanza Fire.
As firefighters fought the flames on the ground, the plane took off from General Atomic’s facility near Palmdale at 3:47 p.m. that Saturday. It repeated a pre-determined course until 7:29 a.m. the next morning.
The Altair, using a high-tech infrared-imaging sensor in its underbelly pod, beamed back 100 images.
Capt. Julie Hutchinson, with the California Department of Forestry and Riverside County Fire Department, said crews on the ground pulled up the images a few times to see what it was capturing.
She said if the drone had gone up earlier in the week, firefighters might have gotten a better look at its capabilities.
“As the unmanned technology develops and if we can get it engaged sooner it may become a more effective tool, especially on a large fire,” she said.
Mike Dietrich, fire chief of the San Bernardino National Forest, said such technology could help put everyone involved in planning the fire attack on the same page.
“The beauty of it is we can operate on the same information at the same time and not be forming different opinions,” Dietrich said.
Hinkley said miniature versions of the Altair built by other companies have been tested in the past year. The battery-operated drones with onboard video systems can be launched by hand from any location, and can stream back live images for up to two hours.
At a cost of about $5,000 per day, compared with $3,000 per hour, they might be more likely candidates for fire use, Hinkley said. Hutchinson said technology has proved itself worthy in some cases. It wasn’t that long ago, she said, that global positioning systems were introduced into firefighting.
Now, she said, GPS units are indispensable tools used in helicopters or on the ground to map the boundaries of a fire.
“As a fire department and especially a wildland one, we’re going to look at the technology that’s out there,” she said. “The sooner we get information to the ground forces and fire managers, that makes a difference. That’s a huge thing for us.”