NASA Drone To Spot Wildfires In Wildlife Refuge

Wildfires across the western United States have been getting bigger and more frequent over the last 30 years – a trend that could continue as climate change causes temperature to rise and drought to become more severe in the coming decades, according to new research. The total area these fires burned increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres each year – an area the size of Las Vegas.

In the effort of helping to reduce wildfires, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, has signed a one-year contract with the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) to test small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for the detection of brush and forest fires in the great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, a 50,000-square-acre region on the Virginia-North Carolina border. This research is a part of the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s UAS Integration’s UAS Integration in the National Airspace System (NAS) project. research will be led by Mike Logan, who also happens to live due north of the swamp, to come up with the idea after a forest fire in 2011, which lasted almost four months. Smoke from that fire, which was caused by a lightning strike, traveled all the way to Maryland and cost more than $10 million to put out. “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 or drone as a fire detector?” said Mike Logan.

After approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA Langley plans to fly a lightweight former U.S. Army target drone equipped with cameras and transmitters over the wildfire refuge. One is an out-of-the-nose camera that can see smoke plumes as they are rising. 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 unmanned aircraft can fly as fast as 40 MPH, but will go slower so the person on the ground watching the video being transmitted from the drone can better see what is happening. Those transmissions can be viewed on a laptop computer in a mobile ground station.Logan said

Logan said the drone, which weighs about 15 pounds and has an almost six-foot wingspan, has a range of about eight miles and can stay aloft as long as an hour, before the batteries need recharging. It even comes equipped with a small and very limited fire extinguisher. Should a small fire be found just as it is starting, the drone can be used to try to stop the fire short. Additionally, the aircraft can be programmed to fly on it own, but a safety pilot will monitor operations during the tests.

“The agency hopes to see a significant decrease in cost to survey the Great Dismal Swamp, as well as a reduction in time to detect nascent fires, which could potentially save millions of dollars to the taxpayers in firefighting costs,” said Great Dismal Swamp Refuge Manager Chris Lowie.

This project, once again, has been proved how technological innovations can be used to protect people. Share your comments with us.

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