A wildfire’s thick black smoke blots out the sun, cloaking the area in a premature dusk. Glowing embers spiral up through the haze. A small camera-equipped aircraft skirts a wall of flames on a dangerous mission to record hot spots and track the fire’s progression.
That is, it would be dangerous if an actual pilot was on board. But this is an unmanned aircraft, capable of venturing into areas too remote or deadly to risk human life. The pilotless plane, also known as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicle, transmits collected sensor data to emergency response teams on the ground that use the information to strategically
allocate fire fighting resources.
Unmanned aircraft are revolutionizing the aerospace industry. No longer solely for military use, UASs have increasing potential for civilian and commercial applications, particularly with regard to emergency response and relief efforts. They can be used for environmental research, law enforcement, border surveillance, search and rescue operations, damage assessment, and recovery efforts following natural disasters. Ideal for situations where it’s too dangerous or difficult to use manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft often cost less and can stay in the air longer — as long as four days without refueling.
“Resources are always at a premium in an emergency situation,” said retired Los Angeles firefighter David Badgett. “Sometimes it’s best to drop water with a manned helicopter. Other times it’s better to send in a UAS for observation. Unmanned aircraft give incident commanders more options, so they can select the most appropriate tool for any given mission.”
Already in use in some states, UASs successfully performed search and rescue missions in Louisiana and Texas during the 2008 hurricanes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses them to hunt down hurricanes and communicate data to the National Hurricane Center in Florida. Police departments in Houston and Miami have tested law enforcement programs using the systems. In California, NASA scientists developed an unmanned aircraft, called the Ikhana, which has proven useful in battling wildfires. Special heat sensors installed in the Ikhana map fire locations by temperature and transmit hot spot information to multiagency coordination centers and firefighters on the ground.
“When people hear about unmanned, remotely controlled planes, they tend to think of Predator drones in Afghanistan seeking out terrorist suspects,” said Alan Jaeger, business manager for the Navy’s Center for Asymmetric Warfare (CAW). “But there’s great potential for this technology right here in our own backyard, especially with respect to fighting fires.”
CAW is a research center affiliated with the Naval Postgraduate School. Its mission is to help civilian and government personnel prepare for asymmetric events — threats outside the range of conventional warfare that are difficult to respond to in kind (e.g., chemical spills, natural disasters and terrorist attacks). More specifically, CAW’s goal is to improve emergency response efforts by integrating and coordinating multijurisdictional, multiagency activities. In one of its latest endeavors, the center has become heavily involved in developing tools to evaluate the capabilities of unmanned aircraft.
“We’re working to determine how UASs can be used to save lives and prevent serious collateral damage during asymmetric events,” Jaeger said. “Right now, they are being tested and used on a very limited basis, primarily to shoot video or take photos with infrared cameras.”
CAW and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conducted a wildfire fighting tabletop exercise in September 2010 at the Dugway Proving Ground, an Army facility in Utah. Representatives from various agencies — such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — attended the four-day event. The goal was to assess the capability of UASs to support firefighters, communicate critical data to different emergency response teams, and reduce the risk and cost of fighting fires. About a dozen vendors and manufacturers were also on hand to demonstrate their devices, many of which were outfitted or capable of being outfitted with sophisticated sensors that could detect heat, chemicals, electromagnetic energy and biological factors such as airborne micro-organisms.
“Connecting the UAS community with emergency response professionals, in this case firefighters,
provides a unique environment for evaluating the potential of these technologies. Unmanned systems have saved lives and improved operations in combat situations,” said Kyle Snyder, UAS operations director at Middle Tennessee State University’s
Aerospace Department and former director of knowledge resources for AUVSI. “The exercises at Dugway demonstrated how these same systems can be beneficial for civilian use too.”
Some unmanned aircraft are small enough to be carried in a backpack or stowed aboard a fire truck, and can be launched by hand — by throwing or catapulting them into the air. Once launched, a UAS can be operated by an external pilot using a laptop and joystick, much like a video game controller. Many UASs combine remote control and computerized automation, or have built-in control and/or GPS guidance. Others can fly autonomously based on preprogrammed flight plans using complex automation systems.
Today’s generation of unmanned aircraft promises to greatly improve emergency response capabilities, coordination and outcomes — once safety issues and other concerns raised by the FAA have been thoroughly addressed. The FAA is working to define UAS safety standards, policies and procedures, and contends that there are valid reasons for proceeding with caution. Typically smaller unmanned aircraft have struggled with system failures, computer glitches and human error, as well as lack collision-warning systems or transponders. In addition, the small size of many UASs makes them difficult to see, and adequate detect, sense and avoid technology is still years away.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said the main concern about UAS operations in the national airspace is safety. “It is critical that aircraft do not endanger other users of the [national airspace] or compromise the safety of persons or property on the ground,” according to the FAA.
Proponents of broader UAS use have encountered numerous stumbling blocks in gaining
access to restricted skies in emergency situations. In normal circumstances, the wait can be as long as 60 days for FAA authorization to operate a UAS in national airspace. In the event of an imminent loss of life, such as following a natural disaster, approval can be expedited for a government agency.
“The FAA places a temporary flight restriction on all manned aircraft whenever a large fire breaks out. The flight restriction establishes who can fly in the zone and under what guidelines,” Badgett said. “Piloted emergency aircraft could be flying in the area along with UASs, and that concerns the FAA. In some circumstances, there are no manned flights at night, and that’s been suggested as an optimal time to deploy unmanned aircraft.”
The FAA is working closely with the UAS community to define operational and certification
requirements, and aims to publish a proposed rule this year. In the meantime, others are moving ahead with initiatives to foster better communication and coordination between emergency response teams. CAW and AUVSI took data gathered during the strategy session in Utah, and compiled a report that agencies can access and adapt to their strengths and needs. The report includes information on the metrics for evaluating unmanned systems, products and services for integration into existing firefighting response services. CAW also developed a program, called Sensor Island, that provides a Web-based central point for gathering critical data and making it immediately available to emergency response teams.
“An incident commander’s decisions are based on the most dependable and up-to-date information available. These decisions impact not only the emergency responders, but the local community as well,” Badgett said. “The Sensor Island technology improves and enhances the common operating picture that decision-makers have — and that’s a critical step forward.”
One of the most talked-about benefits that unmanned aircraft can provide to response teams is more frequent, if not continuous, surveillance of an incident scene. Surveillance includes weather monitoring, imagery of the event and other data that can be captured through an airborne sensor integrated into a UAS. Filtering and presenting that information in a usable format to a response commander demands a tool like Sensor Island.
“This is, after all, the Information Age. Broadening airspace access would allow UASs to provide even more information to emergency professionals,” Snyder said. “To fully maximize that information, we need the ability to compile data from multiple sources into one central place. As AUVSI explores new applications for future exercises, we will continue to use the Sensor Island as our primary source for information.”