Firefighters could get new eye in sky: drones

Agencies are weighing the use of small drones to help monitor wildfires and their danger zones.



    MONTE VISTA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Colo. - An electric whir filled the air of this high desert valley as Jeff Sloan, a cartographer for the United States Geological Survey, hurled a small remote-controlled airplane into the sky. The plane, a 4 1/2-pound AeroVironment Raven, dipped; then its plastic propeller whined and pulled it into the sky.

    There, at an altitude of 400 feet, the Raven skimmed back and forth, taking thousands of high-resolution photographs over a wetland teeming with ducks, geese and sandhill cranes.

    The Raven, with its 55-inch wingspan, looks like one of those radio-controlled planes beloved of hobbyists. But its sophisticated video uplink and computer controls give it away as a small unmanned aerial system, better known as a drone. Drone technology, which has become a staple of military operations, is now drawing scientists with its ability to provide increasingly cheaper, safer and more accurate and detailed assessments of the natural world.

    "This is really cutting edge for us," said Jim Dubovsky, a migratory-bird biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for the health of more than a thousand bird species.

    Designed to monitor enemy positions from afar, the early Ravens, from about 2005, which cost $250,000 per system, were slated for destruction when an Army colonel thought they might be better used for scientific research and were donated to the Geological Survey. They were retrofitted for civilian life with new cameras and other gauges. Their first noncombat mission was counting sandhill cranes.

    Traditionally, species counts are done by a biologist flying in a small plane or a helicopter. While many missions will still require the range of those craft and the experienced eyes of a scientist, drones offer many advantages, including the ability to fly very close without scaring animals.

    Drones have scanned Idaho's backcountry for pygmy rabbits; been battered by trade winds and rain in Hawaii while monitoring fencing protecting rare plant species; and gauged the restoration of the recently undammed Elwha River in northwest Washington.

    Every week brings more requests from other Interior Department agencies, Sloan said. The greatest problem is getting clearance to fly. The FAA is working on new guidelines that will smooth the integration of private commercial drones into the airspace in 2015. Until then, most scientific flights are operated experimentally by the federal government and by public institutions.

    Those new rules cannot come soon enough for Phillip A. Groves, a fisheries biologist with Idaho Power, which operates dams on the Snake River. He sees drones as a safer alternative to manned flights. Three years ago a biologist and a pilot he knew were killed while on a salmon survey when their helicopter crashed.

    "We were just stunned," said Groves, who has had his own brushes with danger flying through Idaho's canyons. He now works with Walker, of the Alaska unmanned-aircraft center, to survey threatened chinook salmon nesting sites with a multi-rotor helicopter drone.

    While the work takes longer - two to three days with a two-person drone crew compared with a single day of a biologist in a helicopter - the overall cost is lower and the data captured by cameras rather than human eyes is far more accurate, he said.

    "The photos and video are clean, and we are learning that my visual counts may be underestimating counts at local sites," he said in an email, noting that fish often build nests atop one another.

    While small drones do have drawbacks, including short battery lives, they can be flown in less-than-ideal weather and in areas where a manned craft might not venture. Groves said he had steered his drones into canyons with 40-mph gusts - enough to abort a manned helicopter mission. The device struggled but flew, and no one's life was put in danger.

    That margin of safety, Groves said, is "priceless."

SAN FRANCISCO - As wildfire season begins in Western landscapes that were covered in smoky haze for weeks at a time last summer, the federal government's professional firefighters are exploring the idea of replacing manned surveillance aircraft.

Infrared cameras on remote-controlled drones - with a maximum wingspan of about 52 inches - could map a fire's size, movement and speed, and identify hot spots, a particular danger to firefighters.

Federal agencies are looking at how much value drones would bring to firefighting methods.

"We're trying to get them in the mix and put them out in the field to see the potential," said John Gould, the Bureau of Land Management aviation chief at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

But the use of drones in open airspace is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and its safety requirements effectively preclude unmanned aerial systems, or UAS's, from operating out of sight of a ground-based pilot. If distance or the smoke of a wildfire obscures a drone from observers on the ground, a manned aircraft must be sent aloft to keep an eye on it.

"In terms of federal regulations right now, we can't use UAS's out there except on a very limited basis," said Ron Hanks, the aviation safety and training officer at the federal Forest Service.

Rusty Warbis, flight operations manager at the Bureau of Land Management, said the approval process is "cumbersome," though improving.

The evaluations by wildfire experts are part of larger questions on how to incorporate these aircraft, originally used for military purposes, into civilian missions. In the case of wild-land fires, their observational abilities could eliminate the risk to pilots and improve the safety of firefighters.

But their presence also could complicate the government's ability to ensure the safety of the country's airspace, which is the FAA's main concern. And observers in Congress believe that inherent distrust of government and privacy concerns are also slowing the introduction of firefighting drones.

Their potential usefulness, particularly their ability to pinpoint hot spots and fly in thick smoke that would ground other aircraft, was shown in an Alaskan fire nearly four years ago.

The fire, which burned more than 447,000 acres northeast of Fairbanks, was generating so much smoke that no planes were permitted to fly. But a drone belonging to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, was launched and easily identified the extent of the blaze and its varying levels of heat.

"The smoke was so thick ... that's why they came to us," said Rosanne Bailey, a retired Air Force brigadier general who is the deputy director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the university. "We could fly and see the borders of the fire using infrared."

Other uses, she said, could include using an aircraft "as a communications node, to enable firefighters in remote areas to give and get information" in remote terrain where cellphone and radio connections are nonexistent.

Kent Slaughter, the acting manager of the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska Fire Service, said it took four days to get the FAA's approval for that flight in 2009; the process is now about 24 hours.

But privacy concerns are slowing the integration of unmanned vehicles into the firefighters' tool kit, said Sen. Mark Begich, a freshman Democrat from Alaska.

"Firefighting is a great example of how unmanned aircraft" are able "to determine the range of a fire, the intensity of a fire, without jeopardizing lives," he said. "That's a unique application, especially in my state, in Colorado, in California."

He called the delays in getting approvals for testing the craft "frustrating." The reason cited most often by firefighting experts is the requirement that the aircraft be followed and monitored by a chase plane if ground observers cannot see them through smoke, or because they are flying into canyons in steep and rugged terrain.

The Interior Department's discussions with the FAA are continuing. Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman, said that safety in the air and on the ground is paramount and that the issue of line-of-sight requirements for drone use is being carefully studied.

The Army has lent the Interior Department 41 small drones that have been used for environmental monitoring, including tracking migratory wildfowl.

The Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, has also been studying drone use for years.

"We are still developing policies internally, what the cost-benefit would be," Hanks said. The drones, he said, "would be competing against what we could do aerially against a helicopter or a light fixed-wing airplane."

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