By TOM BANSE
Multiple times this summer, the sighting of a wayward hobbyist drone has grounded aerial firefighting aircraft at Western wildfires. But unmanned aircraft have the potential to be useful at wildfires too.
The National Park Service used a borrowed surveillance drone this past week over the long-burning Paradise Fire in Olympic National Park.
The Boeing Company’s unmanned aircraft subsidiary Insitu provided the drone and two professional pilots at no charge for a demonstration. The nearly 50-pound, catapult-launchedScanEagle plane flew on six days — both day and night.
Fire information officer Celeste Prescott said this was a good setting for a test because the location was remote, a lot of the terrain inaccessible and the airspace controlled.
“Every single day it got more evident of how useful this is going to be,” Prescott said. “Naysayers, I believe some of their minds were even changed. People who just didn’t see much use, or if was really going to be able to give us a usable product, were shown that it really can.”
Prescott said fire managers used the unmanned “eye in the sky” to guide water drops and map hot spots and the fire perimeter. According to the Park Service, this is the first time this year that an unmanned aircraft system has been used with the proper permissions at a wildfire scene.
It’s not the first time ever, though. In 2013, the California National Guard provided a larger Predator B platform to perform nighttime infrared mapping of the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park. Fixed-wing drones have also been used previously at remote wildfires in Alaska.
In all cases, the drone operators had to wait for the Federal Aviation Administration to grant a temporary waiver and certificate specifying the safety measures and operating conditions applicable to the incident.
Prescott said one of the attractions of drones to firefighting agencies is the potential to keep human pilots out of danger. The unmanned systems also use less fuel and operate more quietly.
The wildfire demonstration was also a coup for Bingen, Washington-based Insitu, Inc.
“I’m proud of the capability we provided,” CEO Ryan Hartman said. “I believe this is the first domino. Having shown how this could work, I expect to see the momentum pick up.”
Currently, the U.S. military and allied governments make up the bulk of Insitu’s customer base. But the manufacturer in the Columbia River Gorge sees a wide variety of commercial applications for its product line, the best known of which are the ScanEagle and the larger RQ-21 Blackjack.
“We have identified wildfires as an area where we can make a difference,” Hartman said. “The technology has been proven out for some time. Our teams are trained and ready to provide this kind of capability.”
Hartman was unsure if another opportunity to fly the ScanEagle at an actual wildfire would present itself this season. His company declined to disclose what it would charge a firefighting agency if one wanted to buy a ScanEagle system outright.
The military-grade drone equipped with live video and infrared cameras is larger and certainly more expensive than consumer and professional models that other vendors have pitched recently at unmanned aircraft conferences.
Hartman said the 2,800-acre Paradise Fire demonstrated that advanced capabilities might be desirable. “We were operating up to 60 miles from the ground station,” he explained. “You can’t do that with a quadcopter. That’s why something like ScanEagle makes sense. It is a platform that can fly a long distance for a long time.”