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Sept. 5, 2001

John Bluck

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Phone: 650/604-5026 or 604-9000

Cyndi Wegerbauer

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

San Diego, Calif. 92127-1713

Phone: 858/455-2294


NOTE TO EDITORS AND NEWS DIRECTORS: Reporters and local, state and federal disaster managers are invited to view a remotely piloted aircraft taking aerial pictures of a "controlled fire" near an airport to simulate a wildfire. The aircraft will send data via satellites and the Internet to firefighters and observers on the ground. The demonstration will be held at the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. Flight Test Facility near Victorville, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 6 starting at 8:30 a.m. PDT. Registration for the exercise will begin at 7 a.m. PDT. A briefing and a tour of the aircraft will follow. Media representatives must present valid press credentials or photo ID to enter the demonstration area. To travel to the event, go north on Interstate 15 to Highway 138, and then turn right on Sheep Creek Road. Turn left on El Mirage Road, and turn right on El Mirage Airport Road after the fire station. Stay to the right after going through the facility's gate.


A remotely piloted aircraft will demonstrate how to provide life-saving images of wildfires to firefighters in near real-time via the Internet on Thursday, Sept. 6.

Called Altus II, the experimental "uninhabited aerial vehicle"(UAV), carrying 200 pounds (90 kg) of camera and communications gear, will fly at 10,000 to 15,000 feet (3,000 to 4,500 m) altitude over a small, controlled fire near an airfield in Southern California. The airplane can fly high enough for a wide view and carries a TV camera as well as a digital multi-spectral scanner that can spot flames through smoke.

"The focus of the UAV disaster monitoring program is getting the right information to the right people at the right time," said Steve Wegener, a scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley. Wegener is leading the sensors and science portion of the project. "In the case of fires, we are providing wide-view aerial fire images that disaster managers have never had before and that they can overlay on maps that show exact locations of assets such as fire engines. The firemen can react more quickly to emergencies, and send assets to trouble spots," Wegener explained.

The research team includes NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology project (ERAST), the California Resources Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, Los Angeles County and the National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho. The team is cooperating in the First Response Experiment that combines the remotely-piloted aircraft, remote sensors and advanced information technology to send over-the-horizon pictures and data to the Internet in near real time.

During the flight demonstration, Altus will take off from a small dry lakebed located south of NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.

The remotely piloted plane sends images and other data to the InMarsat satellite. Communications systems in Australia and other locations around the world receive the satellite's signals. This digital information is transferred to NASA Ames for real-time image processing. Ames scientists then overlay the fire information on maps and post them on the Internet. The entire process takes 10 to 15 minutes.

Although fire management agencies currently use piloted planes to observe fires, these planes usually fly lower, view a smaller area, and often must land to provide images for interpretation and delivery to command posts, according to Wegener. "The delay can be significant when getting images on a timely basis is crucial," he said.

"We hope the combination of sensors, UAV technology and Internet delivery will mature so that it can help firefighters view and combat large fires that exceed local capabilities," Wegener said. "We are developing this technology to enable people to better manage many kinds of disasters including fires, floods and earthquakes. During the next three years we expect to conduct three UAV disaster demonstrations," he added.

The research team is proposing another project that may use a bigger UAV, the Altair, that has a longer wingspan, and can fly as high as 52,000 ft. (15,600 m). That aircraft can fly more fire-monitoring instruments further and for a longer time than the smaller Altus that has a 55-ft. (16.5 m) wingspan and can fly up to 45,000 ft. (13,500 m) in one configuration. Altair has a 4,200-mi. (6,720 km) range, and can stay aloft as long as 32 hours. Altair can carry a thermal imager capable of seeing through smoke, and may also fly a small synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) that can see through water vapor, clouds and smoke. SAR can provide very detailed images of flooding, damaged buildings and other infrastructures difficult to detect, especially in bad weather.

Near real-time delivery of aerial images and data via the Internet can enable anyone to pinpoint key disaster locations, including roads, schools, homes and flood plains, Wegener said. Scientists also foresee using the emerging UAV technology to monitor other conditions on Earth such as climate change, air quality and crop conditions.

Real-time imagery of the controlled burn experiment can be seen on the Internet at:


Related Images

Note to Broadcasters: A video file related to this news release is scheduled for distribution via satellite on NASA Television on Sept. 5, 2001 at noon, 3:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. and midnight EDT. This video file may also run on Sept. 6; please check the website listed below, or telephone 202/358-0713 to confirm a feed on Sept. 6. Because feed times and the schedule are subject to change, please check the NASA TV video file line-up on the web at

NASA TV is available on GE-2, transponder 9C at 85 degrees west longitude, with vertical polarization; frequency is on 3880.0 megahertz, with audio on 6.8 megahertz. For general questions about the video file, call NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC: Fred Brown at 202/358-0713.


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