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It's not easy to figure out the future path of a forest fire — a lot depends on wind and other constantly changing factors. But it's crucial to be as accurate as possible when making predictions. Sensors mounted on an airplane or drone that give a picture of the fire from above are an important tool, and that's where NASA comes in. It has a lot of experience with remote sensing technology and relaying the information quickly to scientists on the ground.

NASA used its unmanned Ikhana aircraft to test technology it helped develop or recommend to the U.S. Forest Service, including a system to send sensor data to decision-makers on the ground in near real time.

NASA isn't the government agency officially tasked with monitoring forest fires — the U.S. Forest Service as well as local and state firefighting agencies and the Bureau of Land Management all work together to battle the infernos. For decades, NASA has worked in partnership with the Forest Service, sharing technical expertise that helps get better information to firefighting decision-makers faster. The collaboration stretches back to the 1980s when NASA was working on sensor technology, and the Forest Service asked how the information gathered by NASA in near real time could be used by the firefighting community. In the 1990s, NASA began a project to adapt uncrewed aircraft for environmental research, and the researchers at NASA Ames wanted to ensure the technology would be useful to the broadest possible spectrum of potential end-users.

One concept tested during the project was sending data in near real time to the ground via communications links installed directly on the aircraft. For the Forest Service, this was a much-needed upgrade to the original system on their crewed jets: rolling up a printout of thermal sensor data into a plastic tube, attaching the tube to a parachute, and dropping it out of the airplane. A downlink connection would allow the data to arrive faster, and it could be sent to multiple recipients at once — not just the team on the fire front line, but the commanders organizing the teams, as well as decision-makers looking at the entire region throughout the fire season.

When the Airborne Science team at Ames was considering the best ways to get information from an aircraft to the ground, they considered several methods including relaying via geosynchronous or low-Earth orbiting satellites, or connecting directly from aircraft to ground. For NASA's larger project on environmental research with drones, a satellite relay made the most sense, because the research would be done over oceans, in the Arctic, and around the globe. But since U.S. forest fires are on land, the team determined an aircraft-to-ground system would work best — it offered a much higher bandwidth than the existing network of low-Earth-orbiting satellites.

Fires in Placer County, CA are seen in images taken by airborne wireless sensor technology onboard the Ikhana unmanned aircraft in 2008. The yellow areas depict active fire areas. (NASA)

NASA recommended a contract with Aircell, which recently rebranded as Gogo Business Aviation, a private company unaffiliated with NASA. NASA's expertise identified the merit of Aircell's airborne wireless networking technology for the Forest Service, which purchased two Aircell systems. NASA's expert evaluation and recommendations have had significant benefits for the Forest Service and for the agencies that rely on the remote sensing data the Forest Service supplies.

NASA and the Forest Service continue to explore using uncrewed aircraft to expand data-gathering. NASA's uncrewed Ikhana test plane has demonstrated improved thermal sensors, and provided helpful data in real fire situations. For the moment, however, the Forest Service continues to rely on the proven service of its two crewed aircraft. But with just two planes to cover the entire country, every minute of air time is in high demand. Using a network connection to send sensor data to decision-makers makes the system safer and more efficient.

Sending the sensor data to multiple recipients also saves time, ensuring decision-makers get the information they need in near real time. As an added bonus, an onboard computer system can quickly process the raw data and send customized information to the various recipients as needed. On the fire line, they want a small file that finds where the fire is, and its intensity. Others, such as planners, want to look at the entire picture and allocate resources, so they need larger image files. Those providing instant commands want to know what multiple crews are doing, so they need a rich image that combines a photographic snapshot with infrared imagery.

When wildfires were raging in northern California in 2008, all that paid off when a NASA test flight using a data downlink system was able to provide updated information to incident managers that was crucial in determining where to send firefighting resources, and whether a full evacuation of particular towns was needed.

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