NASA and U.S. Forest Service Test New Wildfire Imaging Technology

Unmanned aerial system uses satellite technology to share critical information

by / August 29, 2006
In September, NASA and the U.S. Forest Service will be testing technologies to improve wildfire imaging and mapping capabilities. An Altair unmanned aerial system is scheduled to fly a series of four or five missions over the Western United States, and will collect detailed thermal-infrared imagery of wildfires. These tests will demonstrate the ability of unmanned aerial systems to continuously collect data for 20 to 24 hours, as well as demonstrate the mobility, imaging and real-time communications capabilities of NASA's unmanned aerial systems.

"These tests will be a ground-breaking effort to expand the use of unmanned aerial systems in providing real-time images in an actual disaster event," said Vincent Ambrosia, principal investigator of the Western States Unmanned Aerial System Fire Mission at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. "This is a prime example of NASA science and technology being used to solve real-world problems."

The Altair is commanded and controlled through satellite communications which will allow real-time data transfer of fire imagery to virtually anywhere on Earth. Mission data will be sent from the unmanned aerial system to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and then distributed immediately to deployed fire fighters.

For the first time, a NASA sensor system will fly on the Altair. This sensor was built to observe fires and other high-temperature sources and can discriminate temperature differences from less than one-half to approximately 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is important to improving fire mapping.

"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 U.S. Forest Service, Salt Lake City.

Another new technology application being tested during the flights is the Collaborative Decision Environment, originally developed by NASA for the Mars Exploration Rover. It is an interactive tool that will allow sharing vast amounts of mission information during flights which can then be shared and visualized by members of the mission team for effective planning and acquisition of imagery over critical fire events.