NASA, Fish and Wildlife to use UAS for forest fire detection

By Patrick C. Miller | October 09, 2014

NASA is teaming up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a project using unmanned aerial systems to detect brush and forest fires in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia-North Carolina border.

NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, signed a one-year agreement with the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to test small UAVs.

The research will be conducted in the nearly 50,000-square-acre wildlife refuge under a NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate project to integrate UAS into the national airspace.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating the feasibility of airborne unmanned platforms and their ability to offer a safer and more cost-effective alternative for surveillance of potential areas of interest immediately following thunderstorm activity,” said Chris Lowie, Great Dismal Swamp Refuge Manager.

Lowe said the agency hopes to significantly decrease the amount of time needed to detect new fires, resulting in potential cost savings of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

Mike Logan, research lead at Langley, came up with the idea after a forest fire in 2011 that lasted nearly four months and cost more than $10 million to extinguish. Smoke from that fire, which was caused by a lightning strike, traveled as far north as Maryland.

“I made a phone call to the local fire captain after days of inhaling peat bog smoke,” said Logan. “I learned most fires are caused by lightning strikes and the only way they can spot them is by hiring an aircraft to do an aerial survey of the huge swamp. So I figured why not use a UAV as a fire detector?”

After approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the team at Langley plans to fly a lightweight UAS equipped with cameras and transmitters over the wildlife refuge.

“One is an out-of-the-nose camera that can see smoke plumes as they are rising,” Logan explained. “The other is an infrared camera housed in the body of the plane that points down. It can find hot spots by detecting heat signatures.”

The UAV will transmit video that can be monitored on a laptop or mobile ground station. The aircraft weighs about 15 pounds, has a wingspan of nearly six feet, has a range of eight miles and can fly for an hour before recharging. It can be programmed to fly on its own, but a safety pilot will monitor operations during the tests, Logan said.

“This kind of application for unmanned aerial systems shows just one public benefit,” said Dave Hinton, Langley associate director for UAS technologies and applications. “They can be used to detect fires or locate people who are lost.”