How NASA Is Using Aircraft to Fight Fire With Data

How NASA Is Using Aircraft to Fight Fire With Data

12 December 2011

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USA — When it comes to combating wildfires, getting the right information to the right people in a timely manner is of utmost importance. Time not only is money — it also can provide the ability to save lives and structures like houses. For the 2011 wildfire season, NASA and Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley Campus teamed up to test new approaches to managing and obtaining information about these disasters using aircraft and a next-generation emergency operations center (EOC).

The NASA Wildfire Research and Applications Partnership (WRAP) program has been working since 2003 to support research goals and develop new technologies, including using unmanned aircraft to obtain fire surveillance information and get that data to decision-makers in near real time. Information that once took one to two hours to get to fire commanders, now takes just 10 to 15 minutes, said Steve Wegener, a senior research scientist working for the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute, which works in conjunction with the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

The idea behind using unmanned aircraft for damage assessments and information gathering during and after an emergency isn’t new, but it’s constantly improving as researchers understand what’s needed most by decision-makers working in the field. And for Carnegie Mellon, this project was a chance to support NASA’s project and test its next-generation EOC, which Art Botterell, a research scientist with the university’s Disaster Management Initiative, also calls the “continuity and contingency management lab.”

Flying Over Fires

By involving first responders and decision-makers in the project, WRAP representatives have used manned and unmanned aircraft to collect important information about a wildfire and present it in a user-friendly way. In the event of a wildfire in California, Wegener will create a flight plan for the aircraft to pass above the fires and collect information and imagery that can be viewed using Google Earth. The information essentially is sent to responders as a geolocated JPEG that is draped over the map, said Botterell. Decision-makers can use the map’s terrain feature and look at the fire from different angles to see how they are draped over the topography. “You can see the sides of the canyon that the fires are going up,” Botterell said.

The aircraft use a multispectral scanner and the data is calibrated before the plane lands, allowing information to be relayed quickly about aspects like hot spots. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Well the whole mountain is on fire,’ but that doesn’t really let you do anything,” Wegener said. “It’s frequently been the case in firefighting that you didn’t really know where the hot spots were until you got maps at the morning briefing that were generated overnight based on surveys done the previous afternoon.”

Reducing the amount of time it takes for the delivery of information is especially vital when wildfires are near populated areas. And those are the fires that many emergency managers are most interested in learning more about — the ones that can potentially impact the public. However, the fires that approach populated areas have proved to be barriers to the use of flying unmanned aircraft to obtain information. Wegener said the Federal Aviation Administration has been reluctant to allow unmanned aircraft to fly over populated areas, so in many cases the WRAP program can’t get the information it’s after.

To circumvent this issue, Wegener said WRAP has migrated to using manned B200 aircraft that are similar to what the U.S. Forest Service uses. To emulate the use of unmanned aircraft, the B200 follows a strict flight plan.

When it comes to the data, user feedback has changed how it’s shown in Google Earth. For example, data layers are shown in a tree structure and different layers have been moved up higher in the chain as people request it. And those who want to see the raw data, like intelligence officers, also have that resource by loading the geolocated JPEG into his or her analysis software.

Redefining the EOC

Carnegie Mellon is supporting WRAP by providing the program’s representatives with a workspace and a presentation space that are part of the Disaster Management Initiative’s next-generation EOC, which Botterell called “not your traditional bomb shelter environment.” The EOC is made up of communications vans that are parked in a circle, and one goal is for it to run solely on solar power.

Acting as mission control for the WRAP testing, the university will test different aspects of the next-gen EOC, including how well the floor plans and internal communications processes work.

According to Carnegie Mellon, research around the EOC also includes utilizating user-configurable common operating systems and developing a tactical file system for interagency collaboration.

As the university and WRAP work together on the project, they both have one thing deeply ingrained: including users in developing and understanding how the tools could change emergency management. Carnegie Mellon could redefine the idea of what an EOC is, and WRAP seeks to provide fire commanders and decision-makers with the information they need as quickly as possible.

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