Photo by Marcy Stamper
The UAS was launched from a hill near Sun Mountain Lodge to take high-resolution infrared photos of the McLeod Fire.

Unmanned aircraft gathers vital images, information on fires

A high-tech crew led by a program manager with U.S. Bureau of Land Management spent several days last week flying an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to map the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires and locate hot spots beyond the main fires, gathering images and information that might not otherwise be available.

Gil Dustin, manned aircraft system program manager with the Bureau of Land Management in Boise, and his crew of GIS and computer specialists made a special effort to get useful results. “We’ve been hiking up hills with generators and antennas all over this fire to make this work,” Dustin said.

The UAS craft resembles an oversized model airplane with a large wingspan.

The UAS, which sees through smoke and takes high-resolution infrared photos and videos, is relatively new technology still being tested for its applications in firefighting, said Dustin. The plane is indispensable not only for mapping the perimeter of a fire, but also because it can be used to warn firefighters of a threat from hot spots.

Because it can fly low and record resolution at the sub-centimeter level, the UAS is unique. The aircraft have even been used to help paleontologists by flying just 25 feet above the ground to measure the distance between dinosaur toes.

On the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires, the UAS’ mission was to provide information that would help firefighters make tactical and strategic decisions, said Dustin.

Although the UAS can’t see through clouds, the technology is invaluable because the aircraft can fly during the day to provide up-to-date information when planes or helicopters can’t see a fire — or even fly — because of smoke.

UASes serve a vital function by freeing up helicopters for other work. “I would much rather have a helicopter dropping water or people than doing mapping,” said Dustin. And because there’s no pilot on the UAS, they don’t have the same safety concerns.

Mountainous terrain — like that around the Methow Valley — can be challenging for the UAS and is operators since the plane needs a line-of-sight connection. The UAS, which has a 14-foot wingspan, weighs just 35 pounds, so it can be buffeted by wind.

Dustin and his crew found a good spot on a bluff near Sun Mountain Lodge to fly over the McLeod Fire last week. They also flew the craft over the Crescent Mountain Fire from a ridge above Twisp River Road.

Researchers are still refining some of the communications technology, but UASes are valuable because crews can simultaneously monitor the plane’s progress on one computer monitor and fire activity on another. They also have the capability of connecting directly with the incident commander’s handheld tablet.

Images are geotagged so the technicians know exactly what they’re looking at. “I watched the feed from Crescent on my iPad,” said Dustin.

Still learning

UASes have been used on fires for about three years. While fire managers are optimistic about the potential for use of the UASes in firefighting, the technology is still in the research-and-development phase. “We learn so much every day,” said Dustin. “Every day’s a school day.”

Since its batteries are recharged by solar panels while it’s in flight, the UAS can remain airborne for two to three hours. It uses a parachute when it comes in for a landing and is programmed to return to its launch site if it loses line-of-sight contact with the controls.

The aircraft — there are only four in the nation being used on wildfires — are available through local vendors on a call-when-needed contract, but getting one for a fire is still fairly competitive. The UAS can be much less expensive than a piloted aircraft, although the actual cost depends on the vendor, said Dustin.

The UAS is distinct from the small drones flown by hobbyists, said Dustin. In fact, concerns about incursions by casual users are becoming a serious issue for fire managers, who have had to shut down airtanker operations because of the danger of collisions.

“It’s an education issue. They’re not willfully trying to get in the way, but there are millions out there,” said Dustin.

With all the firefighting in the Methow Valley, there’s a huge temporary flight restriction imposed on this entire area, said Dustin.