Over the vast expanse of the smoldering Kenai Peninsula wildfire, a little unmanned aircraft spent nearly six hours picking up signs of hot spots and mapping fire boundaries.
It was early Friday morning. Launched by a catapult, the aircraft, called the ScanEagle, was on its first mission over a wildfire in nearly five years. On a private airstrip near Funny River Road south of Sterling, a team working with the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration hunkered down in a windowless trailer and directed its movements.
When the unmanned aircraft, or drone, landed around 8 a.m., it had found about 15 hot spots within the fire perimeter, information that went directly to officials deciding how to attack the 193,000-acre blaze.
It was an exercise in the applications of unmanned aircraft in public safety, officials said, and in maneuvering new regulations still early in their evolution.
“It really got some of the key people understanding that we can really help,” said Ro Bailey, deputy director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration. “It’s not a toy or something like that. It’s actually something that can approve their ability to do a job.”
At the end of 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that Alaska had been selected as one of six sites to test the expanded use of drones for commercial and industrial purposes. On May 5, the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which is managed by the University of Alaska, gained clearance to start flying operations.
In part, the test sites are tasked with helping the FAA identify regulatory gaps that make it nearly impossible for unmanned aircraft to fly in the national airspace. When it came to launching over the wildfire in Kenai, some of those gaps became quickly apparent — the team had to gain an FAA waiver as well as special approval from the Division of Forestry, Bailey said.
The last time the ScanEagle helped map a wildfire was in 2009, for the Crazy Mountain Complex fire near Central in Alaska’s Interior. Ever since, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management had kept in touch, Bailey said. Before Memorial Day weekend, she and other managers got a heads up from Homeland Security officials that a request for help in the Kenai wildfire might be on the way.
Last Monday, the team got the go-ahead, Bailey said, but it took a few days to sort out various permissions and agreements and issues with restricted airspace. Once a set of temporary agreements were locked in, the aircraft catapulted into the sky at 2 a.m. Friday for a mission that lasted about six hours.
The long air hours suit the ScanEeagle, which can fly up to 20 hours and at altitudes of up to 22,000 feet, Bailey said. It sizes up to 5.1 feet in length, with a wingspan of 10.2 feet.
The aircraft has two types of cameras: one a regular visual camera and the other an infrared, which shows the contrast of heat against a cooler background. It captures a video feed that is recorded and analyzed and then turned over to fire officials, who look at the GPS coordinates of the hot spots and decide the next course of action, said Celeste Prescott, fire information officer.
Generally safer and less expensive to operate than a manned aircraft, officials said it will be used in the coming days to identify threats to people and structures, in addition to finding hot spots and fire boundaries.
Just after midnight Saturday, the ScanEagle took to the skies again. And this time, it went even farther, tasked by the incident management team to take a closer look at the southern portion of the blaze.