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  • NASA Craft Images Wildfires
Aug 2007
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., Aug. 24, 2007 -- Wildfires can consume acres of dry brush and timber quickly, the intense heat and smoke making it too difficult for firefighters to track their progress from the ground. That's why the US Forest Service (USFS) is hoping to improve its fire imaging and mapping capabilities from the air -- with NASA's help.

NASA has teamed with the forest service to test sophisticated new technologies developed by the aerospace agency that could help refine fire mapping in the US: An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can provide real-time satellite images of fires, and interactive software originally developed for Mars missions that will allow researchers to share vast amounts of fire data. The work will be of particular benefit to the western US, which has experienced extreme heat and drought this summer, leading to greater wildfire danger, the USFS said.
The intense heat and smoke generated by wildfires can prevent firefighters from tracking them accurately on the ground. NASA has been helping track this fire, the Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County, California, which started July 4 and is still burning, by providing real-time thermal infrared images from its unmanned aerial vehicle, Ikhana.  (US Forest Service Photo by John Newman)
From mid-August through September, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center is conducting flights of a remotely piloted unmanned aircraft system to demonstrate the capabilities of its sophisticated new imaging and real-time communications equipment.

The first flight of the series, on Aug. 16, captured images of California wildfires, including the Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County. That fire started July 4 and is still burning, to date consuming about 300,000 acres. The aircraft, Ikhana (pronounced ee-kah-nah), carried instruments that collected data while flying more than 1200 miles over a 10-hour period.

"The images from the flight demonstrated that this technology has a future in helping us fight wildland fires," said Zaca Incident Commander Mike Dietrich. "We could see little on the ground since the fire was generating a lot of smoke and burning in a very remote and inaccessible area. This technology captured images through the smoke and provided real-time information on what the fire was doing," said Dietrich.

"These tests are a ground-breaking effort to expand the use of unmanned aircraft systems in providing real-time images in an actual fire event," said Vincent Ambrosia, principal investigator of the Western States 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."
NASA's Ikhana unmanned science and technology development aircraft, is helping the US Forest Service by providing real-time images and tracking information about wildfires. (Photo: Tony Landis)
NASA's Ikhana (derived from a Choctaw Nation word that means intelligent) is a Predator B remotely piloted aircraft adapted for civil missions. NASA acquired it in November 2006 and intends to use it for Earth science and atmospheric science data collection missions.

Ikhana is flying its first operational effort during a series of four or five wildfire missions over the western states. Its sensor payload collects detailed thermal infrared imagery of wildfires and can collect data continuously for 12 to 24 hours. The second flight in the series, a mission over Idaho for approximately 20 hours, was scheduled to take place yesterday.

A satellite data link allows real-time transfer of fire imagery to virtually anywhere on Earth. Information from the sensor is transmitted to Ames, Idaho, where it is simultaneously available to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise as a Google Earth overlay and through NASA/Open Geospatial Consortium Web services.

"The success of these tests will help to refine the future direction of fire mapping for the wildfire management agencies," said Everett Hinkley, liaison and special projects group leader for the US Forest Service, Salt Lake City.

The Autonomous Modular Scanner sensor, designed and built at Ames, is currently configured to observe fires and other high-temperature sources. The scanner can detect temperature differences from less than one-half degree to approximately 1000 °F. These temperature discrimination capabilities are important to improving fire mapping.
Thermal-infrared imagery taken by the Ikhana UAV of the Zaca fire during the afternoon of Aug. 16. These data were provided to the Zaca Fire Incident Command to ascertain fire location and progression for the deployment of firefighting resources. (Image: NASA) 
Scientists are also testing the Collaborative Decision Environment software, a new technology application originally developed by NASA for the Mars Exploration Rovers. This software is an interactive tool that allows sharing of vast amounts of information with members of the mission team for effective planning and acquisition of imagery over critical fires.

Dryden completed a six-month process to obtain a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA allowing an unmanned aircraft to fly wildfire-sensing missions in the national air space of the western states.

"In the not-too-distant future, we'll look back at unmanned aircraft demonstrations like the Western States Fire Mission and realize that these flights paved the way for civilian uses of unmanned aircraft that benefit all of us," said Brent Cobleigh, Ikhana project manager at NASA Dryden.

Pilots from NASA and Ikhana manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. operate the aircraft from a ground control station at Dryden, located at Edwards Air Force Base. NASA sponsorship is provided by the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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