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Home / WLF TheySaid / The use of High Elevation UAV’s on Wildfire.

  • 02/12/2015
  • Mt Eddy

Hello All,

Outside of the website side of things, we do quite a bit of technology development for the Wildland Fire Services. One topic that seems to be regularly coming up, is the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to map the incidents, and provide for better situational awareness.

What’s the thoughts of the uses, concerns, questions, and overall impression?

I’d like as much feedback as I can get to flush out concerns, get ideas on what else we could use this type of technology for, and your overall input. The voice of the community can be heard here quite well. So let’s use TheySaid as a sounding board for Tech Development and Deficiencies! You have a sound ear and voice here!

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  1. GP
    February 13, 2015 Reply

    As an ATGS, my perspective of an emerging or ongoing incident is first to keep everyone on the ground and in the air out of harms way. As aviation assets arrive, we try to coordinate our effort with the resources on the ground to be effective in managing the incident. With as many as a dozen or more rotor-wing working within 500′ agl, jump planes, lead planes and air tankers in the next 1000′ to 1500′ above them, the ATGS platform a 1000′ above that and any media aircraft above them by a 1000′, things can be really busy without drones in the mix. As we try to control the fire traffic area we need to know exactly where every aircraft is to maintain the safety and integrity of the fire environment. There may be times after the fire is controlled or on an incident being managed for resource benefit that they could provide intelligence data without conflicting with other incident aircraft. If they could work above the fire traffic area by several thousand feet and provide the needed intelligence or data, then there may be a place for them. As an ATGS, I don’t want to see them in the mix of tactical aircraft, in the FTA, that I’m managing over the incident. Whatever intel or data they provide for someone on the ground, on the line or in an office somewhere, doesn’t out weigh the safety of the aviation assets I’m tasked with providing for. By the way, as ATGSs, we are providing much of that Intel already to our dispatch centers and duty officers with the use of our iPads and 4g systems. We send realtime maps and photos as we’re providing aerial supervision.

    1. February 13, 2015 Reply

      GP. Great input. The systems being evaluated have the ability to be in rotation in upwards of 24 hours, at high elevation, with a 19,000′ max altitude. Some capabilities they could provide are live link radio for uninterrupted comms for ground troops, constant perimeter mapping, and hot spot detection, without interfering with ATGS. Which could in a way provide the ATGS with additional intel for larger incidents requiring more Air Supervision.

      These types of discussions are great though to take back to the folks working in the UAS industry, and provide hands on feedback.

      Thanks for the intel. Your voice will be great moving forward!

    2. styxfire
      February 19, 2015 Reply

      Hi GP, can you please clarify what software/hardware/app you’re using to “send realtime maps and photos as we’re providing aerial supervision” ? Thankyou

      1. GP
        February 21, 2015 Reply

        On the Cobra, we used the same cameras used for targeting weapons for the military. With the IR, we could detect hot spots, lock on them, get a range to target as well as a lat/long, each time we locked on. We were able assess the effectiveness of retardant drops by locking the IR on to particular hotspots along the line to see the cooling effects of the retardant as it was dropped. We used a computer with mapping capabilities to map fires. We also carried a case with a computer in it that we would land and provide to the IC. From the aircraft we could down link everything we were seeing on the cameras and through conversation with the IC could focus on areas of their concern. It’s been several years since I had the privilege of serving on the Cobras, but maybe someone more current would like to correct/fill-in for me. Currently we’re using iPads as a tool in the cockpit. We use the for a variety of things from navigation with the built in GPS and moving maps (topo, forest, retardant exclusion zones, aviation). We use the camera to take photos and video which we provide to dispatch, the duty officer and the IC, using the 3G capability of the iPad. We also have mapping apps which we use, snap a photo of the screen, and forward to dispatch. With the 3G coverage, we can also gather and provide up to date weather for folks on the incident. The thing that really interests me about the UAVs is the added communication capability. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

        1. February 23, 2015 Reply

          A lot of the capability of the Cobra could be possible with a UAV. Some of the sensor packages now available are pretty interesting and useful. I too have a big interest in the improved coms that could come from a UAV.

          In the Air Platform, do you guys have a Cell Booster, or do you find that your able to tap into already existing mountain top cell towers?

          1. GP
            February 23, 2015

            I can’t speak for other ATGSs,but I don’t use a booster. Generally I’ll check for coverage and climb a bit if I need to. Surprisingly even some of the most remote parts of the lower 48, I’ve had no trouble getting a signal with Verizon. Also for more info on the technology used on the Firewatch Cobra, just go to their website. The cameras were incredible.

          2. February 25, 2015


            That is great to know. Email me sometime. I’d like to chat a bit more detailed:


  2. GP
    February 14, 2015 Reply

    Mt Eddy,
    The opportunities for improved communication links and intel updates sound great if they can be achieved from that high altitude. From my experience in various platforms including the Firewatch Cobras, we’re dispatched to provide aerial supervision and/or provide or gather intel such as mapping or providing realtime imagery. Doing one or the other works well. Trying to do both at the same time can reach task saturation. We’re also monitoring from four to six radio frequencies all of the time and can’t miss a word. Good CRM really helps. With the more technology that becomes available in the cockpit, it’s easier to not have eyes out to see what’s going. If some of the expected Intel and data could be gathered by UAVs, that would be a load off of the ATGS. There are other aircraft that that may be passing the incident, above the incident, not associated with the incident. Commercial airliners as well as general aviation, whose safety also needs to be taken into account, while placing UAVs overhead.
    Thanks for an opportunity to comment. GP

    1. February 14, 2015 Reply

      Oh most definitely. I’m very very intrigued by the thought of being able to aide the ATGS by more increased intel to unload the increasing requests for ATGS provided intel. Knowing the platform already has its hands full. Just like the idea on an engine, when there’s a compartment with extra room, we cram more into it, and it’s a bit the same for the ATGS.

      I’m all for increased situational awareness for the incident, but as you mention, there’s still the required task, and piling more tech on to your hands, sometimes means, the job get overloaded, and some observations may go by the wayside.

      With the company we have been working with, it is a full on FAA TailNumbered Vehicle. It is on AFF, and speaking to the closest towers, so it’s seen in the radar and by other aircraft. I know there is a long way to go, but if there are ways the technology could aide the safety and operations of all responders, I’m excited to see the technology start working its way into the U.S. airspace.

      And a side topic, if you’d be interested in submitting random ATGS or Air Ops topics on occassion, I think there’s a big interest out there. If nothing else, to hear the life of Airborne Firefighters. I’ve been fortunate to work recon flights and aerial mapping missions, and know there’s an entirely different perspective on the fire from the air.

      Thanks for the good chatter!

  3. SCC
    February 16, 2015 Reply

    I’m right there with GP. The human intelligence input along with the pictures, video feed etc. is imperative I believe. If you correlate some of the stories from ” the mission, the men, and me, ” there was and exists an over reliance of ” live feed ,” drone footage on the battle field. My fear is without the human input into what folks are seeing, decisions and/or planning would take place on people’s interpretation of technology without the added input of a highly qualified ” human ,” overhead. With the way that the private industry and our society has pushed the UAS field, there are limits to its practicality in our arena I believe. The days ahead of a PIO briefing to the media with the line ” from the drone footage we can deduct….. ” does worry me just a bit. I’m sure it will come, and I have already had folks who’ve ” been in the neighborhood, ” offer their services. Nice gesture but the potentials without a sound and valid operating plan are just a little concerning.

    1. February 16, 2015 Reply

      SCC, I agree. I do see the space having a place as a tool, but not as Thee tool. The human verified intel will always be paramount for safety and strong sound decision making principles.

      Although there is goods and bads, I do see them coming to the public safety sector in the coming years.

      Thanks for the good conversation all!

  4. Seronica
    February 17, 2015 Reply

    It does seem to be a good tool for public safety teams. However, with any good technology, in the wrong hands, or lack experienced hands, it could be harmful. What are the current FCC rules for hobby UAV’s vs. UAV’s assisting on an incident. Are they the same regulation?

    1. February 18, 2015 Reply

      Hi Seronica
      The FAA does have regulations on Hobby Drones. No one has the ability to fly over a controlled airspace unless given permission by the ATGS, and must follow the FAA guidelines. No commercial flight is allowed, unless a 333 exemption has been issued for said projects. So there is quite a bit of restriction.

      But just like with all rules, people break them. And when people, “Just want to help” we can expect the rule breakers to appear.

      There is quite a bit of work going on with Commercial Operators on UAV use for public safety. But it’s still got a long way to go.

  5. GP
    February 18, 2015 Reply

    Regarding over flights, the Fire Traffic Area (FTA) isn’t recognized as a controlled airspace. Simply a space that fire fighting aircraft recognize and for which we have agreed to protocols that we follow. A Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR), is a restricted airspace which we have the authority to request over an incident if it it reaches sufficient complexity or duration. Sufficient is a judgement call made by the aerial supervison on the incident with incident aviation safety being the driving factor. When a TFR is established, the folks requesting it identify the location (usually but not always, a center point of a circle, centered in the middle of the fire, with an established radius; can also be a an area with corners identified), a frequency that passing aircraft can reach, usually the incident air to air, and a ceiling. A lot of the TFRs I’ve established have had a 12,000′ ceiling, but it depends on the terrain you’re working. Basically aircraft can over fly the TFR above 12,000′ with no issues, though most general aviation won’t other than commercial air carriers. If they want to enter the TFR below the established ceiling, and are not associated with the firefighting effort, and are not law enforcement, the aerial supervison doesn’t have the authority to allow then to pass through the established TFR. It does’t seem to make sense that the folks who requested the TFR can’t clear aircraft through but that’s the law, as pointed out to me by an air space coordinator. As important as it is to establish a TFR for an incident, it’s equally important to remove it as soon as possible to reduce impacts to the general aviation, which in our area affects many folks livelihoods. Hope this helps shed some light.

    1. February 21, 2015 Reply

      Hi GP,

      Thanks for the added input. I didn’t realize that all incidents didn’t have an auto TFR in place. But makes sense to only establish after the complexity calls for such an circumstance.

      With the recent FAA Commercial UAV Regulations coming out last week, I think it’d be important that FAA start to focus on regulations specifically for emergency incidents. The proposed regulations were fairly loose in certain circumstances. There is still the 500′ ceiling and line of sight regulation in place. But I do worry hobbyists will enter the airspace more and more. Causing more and more issues on incidents.

      Just to be clear on my end. We are very active and interested in feedback around the technology. I honestly don’t ever seeing us owning the platform we are working with due to cost. But we do have interest in devolving navigation and imaging software to better aide the GIS, Plans, and Ops folks on large incidents.

      Anyhow, there’s still a long road ahead, but as much ground work and testing that can be done, the better all around outcome can be achieved.

      Thanks again GP

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