Taking Flight: Alaska pioneers use of drones on wildland fires

BLM Alaska Aviation Manager Gary Baumgartner operates a unmanned aerial system during a prescribed burn on military training lands on April 30, 2017.

BLM Alaska Aviation Manager Gary Baumgartner operates a unmanned aerial system during a prescribed burn on military training lands on April 30, 2017.

Alaska wildland firefighters pioneered the use of unmanned aerial systems, or drones, on fires across the country this summer to help provide fire crew support, hot spot detection and mapping. Statewide, the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska owns 17 of the small, 3D Robotic Solo quadcopters, including the nine allocated to BLM Alaska Fire Service. BLM AFS’s wildland fire suppression partner, Alaska Division of Forestry (DOF), has six. Last spring, BLM Alaska and DOF pilots took BLM’s UAS Basic Remote Pilot training in Anchorage. By the end of the summer, these pilots combined to lead the BLM national program in flight time. In total, the small quadcopters flew 880 times for a total of 9,194 minutes in both Alaska and the Lower 48. A majority of the flights were in support of fires (5,804 minutes during 571 flights).

Alaskan firefighters collected other notable firsts. Just a few short months after going through the BLM UAS program’s training, a DOF wildland fire and resource technician became the first to use a UAS on a wildfire. The next day, the BLM AFS Midnight Sun Interagency Hotshots used a UAS they nicknamed “Barry” to fly the same fire, the North Robertson Fire, near Tok. This was the first drone use by a hotshot firefighter out of 100 national Type 1 hotshot crews. In addition, the Alaska Type 1 Incident Management Team (AIMT) was the first of 16 National Type 1 incident management teams to deploy with and utilize a module of drones and pilots while managing fires. BLM AFS and DOF drones and pilots were utilized on all three 2017 Type 1 IMT fire assignments, as well as on several smaller fires in Alaska.

BLM AFS Tanana Zone Unit Aviation Manager Jason Brooks and UAS observer Fire Specialist Bradley Husby practice flying a quadcopter during air operation simulation at Chena Lakes Recreational Area on May 15, 2017. Video by Beth Ipsen//BLM AFS

Most Alaska-based quadcopters have a GoPro Hero 4 camera that can shoot photos and video, but the UAS can also be equipped with a variety of sensors, including an infrared camera on loan from the BLM National Aviation Office. The infrared camera can be deployed quickly to detect hot spots on sections of the fire. The UAS transmits data to the remote pilot in real time, providing land managers and incident personnel with timely, accurate information needed to make informed decisions.

The Department of the Interior has summed up the benefits of using UAS in four words: science, safety, savings and service. The BLM and other DOI agencies are exploring the use of UAS for mapping fires, vegetation, and rivers; monitoring wildlife; and conducing reclamation and compliance inspections, among other uses. UAS can be operated at a cost substantially lower than manned aircraft. Most importantly, the use of UAS can reduce the risks associated with manned aircraft. The quadcopter costs about $2,000, plus the cost of the sensor and the wages for the pilot and observer required for each flight. Because the quadcopters have the ability to fly low and hover, they can go where planes may not be able to and can be used on missions that may be too risky for manned aircraft.

This screen shot shows what pilots see on the control monitor during an infrared flight. The bright white spots are hot spots on the edge of a fire.

This screen shot shows what pilots see on the control monitor during a flight with an infrared camera. The bright white spots are hot spots on the edge of a fire.

“We can get latitude and longitude immediately, and are able to identify hot spots not visible to the naked eye,” said Jason Brooks, a UAS pilot and the BLM AFS Tanana Zone Unit Aviation Manager. “We can quickly get the coordinates back to the firefighters on the ground without requiring a helicopter flying low and slow over the area.”

After a very successful summer flying drones throughout the country, Brooks and fellow BLM AFS UAS pilot Joe Don Morton, were among those selected for the first ever Department of Interior Unmanned Aerial System prize for safety, innovation and efficiency. Brooks and Morton were the BLM honorees for their work flying drones “to gain never before available situational awareness during times when other aircraft were unable to fly due to smoky conditions,” according to the announcement from the Department of Interior. “Their work proved the value of training and equipping firefighters with this technology and was a huge step forward in the integration of UAS for fire.”

Since each BLM AFS hotshot crew has a UAS and qualified pilot, the quadcopters are readily available for wildfires. “Sherman” and “Jill” are assigned to a pair of UAS-pilot qualified BLM AFS smokejumpers and can be dropped on remote fires with other paracargo supplies. “Leslie” and “Raj,” are assigned to Fire Specialists, and “Lucy” and “Tim” are shared among members of the BLM AFS Fire & Aviation section that directly supports fire operations. The BLM quadcopters are named after characters from TV shows such as “Star Trek,” “MASH,” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

The BLM AFS first put its quadcopters to good use last April, flying four prescribed fires. One of those fires was managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for bison habitat regeneration. BLM AFS fuels management specialist and UAS pilot Kato Howard used a UAS, coincidently nicknamed “Howard,” to capture aerial footage and images of the prescribed burn to document fire behavior, operational procedures, and post-fire monitoring of habitat restoration. Use of the quadcopter was a huge success, Howard said, providing good-quality video and still images, and demonstrating the UAS as a safe and effective fire management tool.

“What amazed us is (that) you get a totally different view of the fire than you get on the ground,” Howard said. “We were surprised at what we could see beyond the line of sight of the UAS itself. The camera can get good, quality images at a distance.”

Footage from two different flights over a prescribed fire on military lands north of Eielson Air Force Base show what the GoPro4 camera attached to the unmanned aerial systems captures.

The UAS are not without drawbacks. Due to line-of-sight requirements and battery limitations, it has a range of a half mile and a maximum 20-minute flight time. Batteries take two hours to recharge. Because the UAS is limited by range and battery life, the quadcopter will not replace helicopters when large fires need infrared mapping in a short timeframe.

“They both have their place,” said BLM Alaska Aviation Manager Gary Baumgartner. “The quadcopter is capable of accomplishing a variety of missions, but the real niche is the ability to provide on-the-line firefighters with quick, real-time situational awareness when it’s not readily available or practical to accomplish by other means.”

BLM Alaska Fire Service drone pilot Jason Brooks readies the quadcopter for take off before flying over the North Robertson Fire near Tok on June 10, 2017.

BLM Alaska Fire Service drone pilot Jason Brooks readies the quadcopter for take off before flying over the North Robertson Fire near Tok on June 10, 2017.

Brooks carried nine quadcopter battery packs and a portable generator while flying the infrared camera on the North Robertson Fire last June. Brooks was able to fly a total of 18 13-minute flights to detect hot spots near the edge of the fire, making slight modifications every time. He discovered that a piece of plywood on top of the square lids of a plastic garbage can works well as a UAS landing pad, especially in tussocks. He also learned that in addition to his regular pre-flight radio conversations with other aircraft on the fire, he needed to communicate with ground crews. This discovery came after the ground crews mistook the quadcopter for a swarm of bees flying their way.

The UAS is considered another aircraft on a fire and requires coordination with aerial supervision staff to ensure it doesn’t cross paths with helicopters or planes that may be dropping water or retardant, shuttling and deploying crews and supplies, or performing aerial reconnaissance of the fire. Because both operate near the ground, helicopters and quadcopters cannot be used in the same area of operations at the same time.

Before taking a seat in the BLM’s UAS class, students had to pass a Federal Aviation Administration exam and apply for the FAA’s remote pilot certificate. In addition, they had to complete interagency on-line training in aviation safety, airspace regulations, agency aviation policy, and aviation mishap review. They also had to review the operating manual for the 3D Robotic Solo aircraft and review DOI policies regarding the use of drones. In addition, their supervisors had to complete aviation management training for supervisors. More training to add more UAS pilots to both BLM Alaska and DOF ranks is scheduled for next spring.

Just like flying a plane, operating a UAS will never be risk-free, so the importance of safety and the need to build piloting skills to reduce risk is emphasized throughout training and use. However, the UAS is a good, cost-effective, safe option.

BLM AFS will continue to test the quadcopter’s capabilities on fires and determine what UAS platforms and methods work the best to fit the need.

“It’s another tool,” Brooks said. “I’m excited about the potential, especially when it deals with limiting exposure to firefighters.”

~Story by BLM AFS Public Affairs Specialist Beth Ipsen and BLM Alaska Public Affairs Specialist Maureen Clark.

 

About BLM Alaska Fire Service

The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service (AFS) located at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, provides wildland fire suppression services for over 244 million acres of Department of the Interior and Native Corporation Lands in Alaska. In addition, AFS has other statewide responsibilities that include: interpretation of fire management policy; oversight of the BLM Alaska Aviation program; fuels management projects; and operating and maintaining advanced communication and computer systems such as the Alaska Lightning Detection System. AFS also maintains a National Incident Support Cache with a $10 million inventory. The Alaska Fire Service provides wildland fire suppression services for America’s “Last Frontier” on an interagency basis with the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Military in Alaska.

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