UAS demonstrates potential of unmanned aircraft for wildfire use


Mark Engebretson

Owners of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, based in Oklahoma City, were at Possum Kingdom Lake Saturday demonstrating unmanned aircraft that can be used over wildfires. Held at the Possum Kingdom East Volunteer Fire Department, representatives from the Brazos River Authority, Graham Fire Department, Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Office and Caddo VFD attended. Greg Ward, who has extensive experience with Channel 9 in Oklahoma City with video and audio reporting from aircraft, explained some of the capabilities.

“The flexibility is endless, you can configure it a number of ways,” he said. The 4.4-pound aircraft can be equipped with forward looking video with a variety of possible lenses, infrared and thermal imaging among the options. He also said there are a number of options for flying the aircraft, from line of sight, to first person with a computer monitor, much like a video game to programming it to specific coordinates. “Flight time is generally two hours,” Ward added. “We’re putting auto pilots in all of these. It can return to the GPS location where it was launched, circles and waits to land.”

Jerry Stuckey, the company’s CEO, said the aircraft is made on composite Styrofoam. “If something happens, if it runs into the roof of a house it won’t hurt the house.” He added that should something happen to damage the aircraft, the package contains spare parts. They also explained that a video signal is sent to a receiver connected to a computer. The signal includes the aircraft elevation, GPS coordinates and flight speed.

All this data can be recorded on a SDHC card that can be played on a computer. In addition, multiple receivers can be used including in fire trucks, mounted on the dash to give firefighters real time views of the fires and where potential problems – or dangers – exist. Stuckey said the aircraft has line of sight navigation or can be programmed to specific coordinates. If it loses the signal, it is programmed to return. Once a signal is obtained, the operator can once again control the aircraft.

“We will train you,” said Stuckey. “A simulator comes with the package,” Ward added. The other plus for the system is the ability to search for missing people. “A 2-year-old walks away from camp, an aircraft with thermal images can find him,” said Stuckey.

“Your imagination is the only thing that limits what you can do,” Stuckey continued.

The company offers a number of options which can be mounted on the unmanned aircraft. Stuckey said that list would be forwarded to PK East VFD for review. Once options are selected, a price would be provided. “This is new, this industry is not very old,” Stuckey added.

Ronnie Ranft, PK East VFD said he believes the system would be very beneficial. “We already know the value of having air resources from Texas Forest Service for locations of fires, potential dangers and where a fire is headed,” he said. “In having an unmanned aircraft, it would greatly enhance our ability to contain a wildfire by aiding in our evaluation of a fire.”