Textron Systems uses UAS for high-tech firefighting

By Patrick C. Miller | October 01, 2015

Technology used to fight the wildfires that have plagued western states this past summer could improve dramatically after Textron Systems Unmanned Systems demonstrated the capabilities of its Aerosonde unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Idaho.

Working with the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Forest Service, Textron deployed a team, equipment and its unmanned aerial system (UAS) to a remote site near McCall, Idaho, to assist 600 firefighters battling the Tepee Springs blaze that covered nearly 100,000 acres. The Textron team was in Idaho from Sept. 13 to Sept. 24.

Chris Ellsworth, Textron’s program manager of commercial unmanned systems, said the company had discussed the mission with DOI, but didn’t know when or where it would occur. They had one week’s notice to bring together people and equipment from across five different Textron entities. The group deployed to a cold, snowy site on top Carey Dome—7,700 feet above sea level—and flew the Aerosonde from the location.

“It was an austere environment,” Ellsworth said. “There was no connectivity—power, Internet or phone service. We basically had to bring everything with us that we needed, including sleeping out there in tents.”

Textron’s small UAS is launched from a trailer-mounted catapult and snagged out of the air with a net. The company has more than 100,000 hours of experience operating the Aerosonde in conditions ranging from the battlefields of Afghanistan with the U.S. military to commercial oil and gas operations to research flights in hurricanes and in the Arctic.

According to Ellsworth, DOI typically flies a manned aircraft equipped with infrared sensors during the night to detect hotspots. He said a half day or more can pass before the information can be analyzed and given to the incident commander who uses it to direct the firefighting assets in the air and on the ground.

“That was a mission we decided to take on in the beginning to see if we could do it more quickly and give them an almost a real-time view of where the hotspots were, where the fire perimeter was and maybe the location of hotspots outside the fire perimeter that they didn’t know about,” Ellsworth explained.

“We flew a variety of sensors and were able to detect hotspots very clearly during daytime,” he continued. “We could identify these hotspots much sooner than with regular visible imagery. We were able to create overlays for the incident command GIS team that generates maps every day. While we were flying, we sent out reports to them about every half hour.”

In addition, Textron flew missions using the Aerosonde’s communications relay capabilities, providing the incident commander and firefighters on the ground with voice communications, video and data to improve situational awareness. A third mission involved mapping the burned area after the fire was out to show where the most damage occurred and assist in recovery efforts.

David Phillips, Textron’s vice president for small and medium-endurance UAS, said that according to DOI, the actionable intelligence provided by the Aerosonde and Textron’s team to firefighters was unlike anything the agency had ever received.

“It was very useful and it was very time efficient,” he said. “They could see things that enabled them to take a more directed approach toward dealing with the aftermath of the fire or dealing with the areas of the fire that were most intense.”

Initially, Ellsworth said pilots flying helicopters and fixed-wing tankers battling the fire were skeptical of sharing the same airspace with a UAV. He said the Textron aircraft didn’t fly until the procedures had been worked out and the pilots were comfortable with them. The Aerosonde flew 1,000 feet above the manned aircraft and used a transponder, making it visible to air traffic controllers and other aircraft.

Phillips said that although the mission was challenging, the company’s military experience paid off.

“It was approached like a military operation with a lot of intelligence products and sensors and aircraft that were developed for the military,” he noted. “But at the same time, were able to deliver very quickly and very responsively that same kind of intelligence to a civil organization.”

Phillips said it was a learning experience that will help Textron to develop its UAS for commercial markets.

“It’s great to be able to learn while we’re also providing needed assistance and actionable intelligence,” he said. “We learned how to make our products better for the commercial market.”


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