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NASA Arm Develops ‘Flying Firefighters’ with Drones to Control Forest Wild Fires

NASA researcher Mike Logan plans to use this small unmanned aerial vehicle to check for fires at a Virginia-North Carolina wildlife refuge as part of an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Credit: NASA Langley/David C. Bowman

NASA researcher Mike Logan plans to use this small unmanned aerial vehicle to check for fires at a Virginia-North Carolina wildlife refuge as part of an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Image Credit: NASA Langley/David C. Bowman

NASA is developing its own Drones to detect wildfires and also to extinguish them before they turn into major tragedies eroding forests, said researchersw at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Virginia, terming them “flying firefighters”.

Built at a cost of $5,000-$10,000, these unmanned drones would cost as little as $50 per flight and it is limited to 20 to 25 minutes of air time at roughly 40 to 50 mph. They are currently undergoing tests at the military aviation museum in Pungo, Virginia.

NASA’s Langley Research Center, in nearby Hampton, Virginia, has signed a one-year agreement with the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to test small UASs for the detection of brush and forest fires, which would be part of the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s UAS Integration in the National Airspace System (NAS) project.

“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 Great Dismal Swamp Refuge Manager Chris Lowie. “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 taxpayer in firefighting costs,” added Lowie.

Mike Logan, the lead author said the idea came after a forest fire in 2011 that lasted almost four months had cost the US more than $10 million to extinguish. Smoke from that fire that was triggered by a lightning strike, moved as far north as Maryland only three years after another $10-million blaze in 2008, according to the FWS.

“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.”

Although the aircraft can fly as fast as 40 miles an hour, when used in this capacity it will be flown slower while it transmits video, allowing individuals on the ground to observe what is occurring in the live video. The transmissions can be viewed on a laptop computer in a mobile ground station.

Logan says the drone, which weighs about 15 pounds and has an almost 6-foot wingspan, has a range of about eight miles and can stay aloft as long as an hour, before the batteries need recharging. The aircraft also can be programmed to fly on its own, but a safety pilot will monitor operations during the tests, he added.

“This kind of application for unmanned aerial systems shows just one public benefit,” said Dave Hinton, Langley associate director. “They can be used to detect fires or locate people who are lost.”
NASA researcher Mike Logan plans to use this small unmanned aerial vehicle to check for fires at a Virginia-North Carolina wildlife refuge as part of an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Image Credit: NASA Langley/David C. Bowman

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