Efforts are under way to develop data- acquisition, data- processing, and data- communication systems for monitoring disasters over large geographic areas by use of uninhabited aerial systems (UAS) — robotic aircraft that are typically piloted by remote control. As integral parts of advanced, comprehensive disaster-management programs, these systems would provide (1) real-time data that would be used to coordinate responses to current disasters and (2) recorded data that would be used to model disasters for the purpose of mitigating the effects of future disasters and planning responses to them.

Monitoring by Instruments Aboard a UAS would provide information to coordinate actions of ground assets at the scene of a disaster. The UAS and one or more satellite(s) would also serve as communication relays.
The basic idea is to equip UAS with sensors (e.g., conventional video cameras and/or multispectral imaging instruments) and to fly them over disaster areas, where they could transmit data by radio to command centers. Transmission could occur along direct line-of-sight paths and/or along over-the-horizon paths by relay via spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. The initial focus is on demonstrating systems for monitoring wildfires; other disasters to which these developments are expected to be applicable include floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, leaks of toxic chemicals, and military attacks.

The figure depicts a typical system for monitoring a wildfire. In this case, instruments aboard a UAS would generate calibrated thermal-infrared digital image data of terrain affected by a wildfire. The data would be sent by radio via satellite to a data-archive server and image-processing computers. In the image-processing computers, the data would be rapidly geo-rectified for processing by one or more of a large variety of geographic-information-system (GIS) and/or image-analysis software packages. After processing by this software, the data would be both stored in the archive and distributed through standard Internet connections to a disaster-mitigation center, an investigator, and/or command center at the scene of the fire.

Ground assets (in this case, firefighters and/or firefighting equipment) would also be monitored in real time by use of Global Positioning System (GPS) units and radio communication links between the assets and the UAS. In this scenario, the UAS would serve as a data-relay station in the sky, sending packets of information concerning the locations of assets to the image-processing computer, wherein this information would be incorporated into the geo-rectified images and maps. Hence, the images and maps would enable command-center personnel to monitor locations of assets in real time and in relation to locations affected by the disaster. Optionally, in case of a disaster that disrupted communications, the UAS could be used as an airborne communication relay station to partly restore communications to the affected area.

A prototype of a system of this type was demonstrated in a project denoted the First Response Experiment (Project FiRE). In this project, a controlled outdoor fire was observed by use of a thermal multispectral scanning imager on a UAS that delivered image data to a ground station via a satellite uplink/downlink telemetry system. At the ground station, the image data were geo-rectified in nearly real time for distribution via the Internet to firefighting managers. Project FiRE was deemed a success in demonstrating several advances essential to the eventual success of the continuing development effort.

This work was done by Steven S. Wegener, Donald V. Sullivan, Steven E. Dunagan, and James A. Brass of Ames Research Center; Vincent G. Ambrosia of California State University — Monterey Bay; Sally W. Buechel of Terra-Mar Resource Information Services; Jay Stoneburner of General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems, Inc.; and Susan M. Schoenung of Longitude 122 West, Inc. For further information, access http://geo.arc.nasa.gov/sge/UAVFiRE/whitepaper.html  or contact the Ames Technology Partnerships Division at (650) 604-2954. ARC-14999-1.