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NASA Provides Rapid Response to State Emergency Service Request
Altair in flight
Image above: With a high-tech infrared imaging sensor in its underbelly pod, the Altair unmanned aircraft recently flew repeated passes over the Esperanza wildfire the night of Oct. 28-29 to aid firefighting efforts. (Altair photo courtesy General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)
When the Esperanza fire in Southern California ignited on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the Esperanza Fire Incident Command Center requested NASA's imaging and fire mapping assistance to support the team of fire fighters battling the rapidly-growing wildfire.

In less than 24 hours, NASA was able to fly a remotely piloted aircraft over the 40,200-arce fire. From an altitude of 43,000 feet, the Altair Unmanned Aircraft System's sensors collected and sent 100 images and more than 20 data files containing the location of the fire perimeter over a 16-hour period on Oct. 28 and 29.

"NASA delivered a ground-breaking performance that demonstrated the use of unmanned aircraft systems in providing real-time images in an actual disaster event," said Vincent Ambrosia, principal investigator of the Western States Unmanned Aircraft System Fire Mission at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "This is a prime example of NASA science and technology being used to solve real-world problems."

Earlier this summer, NASA provided aerial imaging and fire mapping capabilities to the U.S. Forest Service on prescribed fires.

The Altair Unmanned Aircraft System was built and operated by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, Calif. Integrated onto the Altair was a sensor system built by NASA Ames to observe fires and other high-temperature sources. The sensors can discriminate temperature differences from less than one-half degree to approximately 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Depicts a composite of thermal, infrared, and visible spectral data, acquired from the NASA Automated Modular System-Wildfire sensor on the Altair
Image above: This image depicts a composite of thermal, infrared, and visible spectral data, acquired from the NASA Automated Modular System-Wildfire sensor on the Altair, draped (in 3-D rendition) over the terrain and image background data provided in GoogleEarth. The bright red areas are active fire, the ruby to purple areas are previously burned areas (still warm) and the green areas are unburned vegetation. Images such as this were used by the Governor's Office of Emergency Services and California Dept of Forestry to delineate the active fire and hotspots and determine areas where the fire extended beyond the known control perimeters.(NASA Photo)
Another technology application being tested during this mission was the Collaborative Decision Environment, originally developed by NASA for the Mars Exploration Rover. It is an interactive tool that allows sharing vast amounts of mission information during flights. The multitude of tools this technology provides can be shared and visualized by members of the mission team for effective planning and acquisition of imagery over critical fire events.

During the 16-hour flight, the aircraft delivered real-time, visible and infrared data through a satellite communications link to servers at Ames, and then from there to the Esperanza Fire Incident Command Center where it was used to map fire behavior and direct resources to critical areas on the fire.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., was responsible for the aircraft-related elements of this mission, including range safety. They also interfaced with the Federal Aviation Administration, which assures the safety of unmanned aircraft system flights in the National Airspace System. Recent changes to the FAA's organizational structure allowed that agency's approval of the mission to be expedited, while ensuring no degradation of safety and without imposing any new temporary flight restrictions.

"The success of this mission will help direct the future of fire mapping for the wildfire management agencies," said Everett Hinkley, liaison and special projects group leader for the U.S. Forest Service, Salt Lake City.

The flight project was sponsored and funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The team consisted of specialists from Ames Research Center; Dryden Flight Research Center; National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho.; U.S. Forest Service Remote Sensing Laboratory, Salt Lake City, Utah; California Governor's Office of Emergency Services ; California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Sacramento, Calif.; and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

For more information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

For more information about the U.S. Forest Service unmanned aerial system program, visit:

Ruth Marlaire
NASA Ames Research Center