With smoke from the Lake Arrowhead, CA area fires streaming in the background, NASA's Ikhana unmanned aircraft heads out on a wildfire imaging mission. (NASA photo / Jim Ross) NASA and the U.S. Forest Service successfully demonstrated technologies that improved real-time wildfire imaging and mapping capabilities during a series of research flights by an unmanned research aircraft in the summer and fall of 2007. The Western States Fire Mission flights were a follow-on to a similar campaign during the fall of 2006.
NASA's Ikhana, a remotely piloted Predator B unmanned aircraft system adapted for civilian science missions, flew the first four flights between mid-August and late September from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, CA. The flights demonstrated various platform, sensor, and data dissemination technologies related to improving real-time wildfire observations. Each of the flights built upon results of the previous ones to expand the aircraft and sensor system's capabilities in endurance and range, number of observations made, and flexibility in mission and sensing reconfiguration.
Ikhana carried the Autonomous Modular Sensor developed by scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. The sophisticated sensor collected detailed thermal-infrared imagery of wildfires and data continuously for up to 20 hours. The data were downlinked in near real-time to NASA Ames Research Center near San Jose, overlaid on Google Earth maps, and relayed over the Internet to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID, and then to fire incident commanders in the field to aid in their allocation of firefighting resources.
In this colorized infrared image taken by the Autonomous Modular Scanner on the Ikhana flying over the Harris Fire in San Diego County in October 2007, active fire areas show up in bright yellow and pink, while previously burned areas are noted in various green and blue hues. (NASA photo) These incident command teams used the data to redeploy fire-fighting resources, assess effectiveness of containment operations, and move critical personnel and equipment from hazardous fire conditions. The real-time thermal-infrared data were geo- and terrain-rectified to allow ease of use in geographic information systems or data visualization packages, such as Google Earth, and were essential for operations in areas where blinding smoke obscured normal incident observations.
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With ground-based pilots flying the aircraft between 23,000 feet and 25,000 feet altitude during the first four flights, Ikhana was airborne for a total of 56 hours over eight of the western states and covered more than 8,900 nautical miles. Twenty wildfires in six western states were imaged. NASA Dryden worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration for approval and coordination of Ikhana's flights into the national airspace.
Several of these fires were revisited on long-duration flights to provide time-induced fire progression data. Post fire imagery was captured to aid teams working a Burned Area Emergency Response that will include area stabilization and ecosystem rehabilitation.
NASA Ames engineers Sally Buechel and Ted Hildum prepare to load the Autonomous Modular Scanner into the Ikhana unmanned aircraft's payload pod. (NASA photo / Tom Tschida) The Western States Fire Mission also gathered data with satellite sensor systems orbiting overhead, allowing for comparison and calibration of those resources with the more sensitive instruments on the Ikhana. The aircraft flew seven precisely timed cross-calibration underpasses of the TERRA and AQUA satellites. Ikhana data compared with sensor collections aboard the satellites will prove valuable when defining new space-based methodologies for fire observations and enhance current space-based capabilities and measurements.
Four additional fire-mapping flights were flown in late October at the request of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the Interagency Fire Center. Santa Ana winds in Southern California fanned a number of wildfires. The Autonomous Modular Sensor was an important tool for this activity with its capability to peer through thick smoke and haze to record hot spots and the progression of the fires over a lengthy period. These flights, averaging about nine hours each, were a real-world extension of the earlier Western States Fire Mission demonstration flights. The flights were a result of close coordination work between NASA, the fire incident commands and the Federal Aviation Administration.
NASA research pilot Mark Pestana flies the Ikhana unmanned aircraft remotely from the ground control station at NASA Dryden. (NASA photo / Tom Tschida) General Atomics Altair unmanned aircraft, a longer-wing prototype version of the Predator B, was used during the earlier series of Western States Fire Mission flights in 2006. The Altair, whose development was funded in part by NASA, carried a payload of instruments for imaging wildfires and measuring trace gases, including a 21.6-hour flight that gathered fire imagery data over Yosemite Park from an altitude of 43,000 feet.
In late October 2006, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the Esperanza Fire Incident Command Center requested NASA's imaging and fire mapping assistance, similar to what occurred a year later. For a 16-hour period on Oct. 28 and 29, 2006, Altair flew over the arson-set fire that claimed the lives of five firefighters. The wildfire sensor collected and transmitted more than 100 images and 20 data files containing the location of the fire perimeter. This data, sent real time through a satellite communications link, was used by the Esperanza Fire Incident Command Center to map fire behavior and direct resources to critical areas of the fire.
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