Unmanned interference: UAS ground aircraft used to fight wildfires

HOWARD'S TOWER BLOG. Washington State is on fire, quite literally. Fires have ravaged more than 600,000 acres in the Pacific Northwest – including Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and most severely, Washington. Thankfully, Washington State is a hub of aerospace activity.

Sep 9th, 2015
Unmanned interference: UAS ground aircraft used to fight wildfires
Unmanned interference: UAS ground aircraft used to fight wildfires

Washington State is on fire, quite literally. Fires have ravaged more than 600,000 acres in the Pacific Northwest – including Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and most severely, Washington.

Thankfully, Washington State is a hub of aerospace activity. “Washington produced 95 percent of all commercial airplanes manufactured in North America” according to the Washington State Department of Commerce. The aerospace community has been invaluable in the battle against wildfires rampant in the Pacific Northwest this summer, lending myriad fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft to the fight.


Photo of wildfires in Spokane, Washington, neighborhood

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) also made an appearance – and the experience has been both good and bad.

Key officials in the U.S. Department of the Interior partnered with industry – namely Insitu, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Boeing Co., -- to test and demonstrate the value of UAS in combating wildfires. The test, although brief, demonstrated that data gleaned from UAS payloads – such as electro-optic sensors, still and full motion video (FMV) cameras, and other imaging and processing technologies – is useful for tasks such as fire location and monitoring, planning, decision making, and more.

A large number of Washington residents proved to be aerospace and UAS enthusiasts and hobbyists when several folks flew their commercial unmanned aircraft to capture images and video of the blazing wildfires.

I don’t know why I was surprised to see this, except that when the fire came close to my own home, launching a UAV was the last thing on my mind. Come to think of it, how long until journalists such as myself can cover aerospace industry conferences and trade shows with UAS? I didn’t see any at Paris Airshow this summer (although “selfie sticks” appeared in abundance), but how cool would that be? I digress… per usual.

Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters were grounded whenever a UAS was seen by firefighters, out of necessity. “A small unmanned aircraft can easily go undetected as pilots’ visibility is impaired by thick smoke and attentions are focused on keeping track of other airplanes and helicopters battling the fires,” an industry pundit affirms. “If a small UAS (sUAS) is sucked into a helicopter’s propeller or an airplane’s engine, it can quickly bring the aircraft down.”

Washington isn’t alone in grounding airborne firefighters due to interference by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Utah forestry officials grounded firefighting helicopters and airplanes this week due a commercial UAS in the area.

Drones are dangerous because they can hit a helicopter or plane and cause a crash, explains Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands Spokesman Jason Curry. "It shouldn't have to take someone getting killed in order for the public to take this seriously.”


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