Since 2006, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) and Ames Research Center have been perfecting and demonstrating a new capability for geolocation of wildfires and the real-time delivery of data to firefighters. Managed for the Western States Fire Mission, the Ames-developed Autonomous Modular Scanner (AMS), mounted beneath a wing of DFRC’s MQ-9 Ikhana remotely piloted aircraft, contains an infrared sensor capable of discriminating temperatures within 0.5 °F (≈ 0.3 °C), up to 1,000 °F (≈ 540 °C).

The AMS operates like a digital camera with specialized filters to detect light energy at visible, infrared, and thermal wavelengths. By placing the AMS aboard unmanned aircraft, one can gather information and imaging for thousands of square miles, and provide critical information about the location, size, and terrain around fires to commanders in the field. In the hands of operational agencies, the benefits of this NASA research and development effort can support nationwide wildfire fighting efforts. The sensor also provides data for post-burn and vegetation regrowth analyses.

The MQ-9 Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), a version of the Predator-B, can operate over long distances, staying aloft for over 24 hours, and controlled via a satellite-linked command and control system. This same link is used to deliver the fire location data directly to fire incident commanders, in less than 10 minutes from the time of overflight. In the current method, similarly equipped short-duration manned aircraft, with limited endurance and range, must land, hand-carry, and process data, and then deliver information to the firefighters, sometimes taking several hours in the process. Meanwhile, many fires would have moved over great distances and changed direction. Speed is critical. The fire incident commanders must assess a very dynamic situation, and task resources such as people, ground equipment, and retardant-dropping aircraft, often in mountainous terrain obscured by dense smoke.

This work was done by Mark Pestana of Dryden Flight Research Center. For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) at under the Physical Sciences category. DRC-010-020

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2010 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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