Two officials in the U.S. Department of the Interior in Boise, Idaho – Office of Aviation Services Director Mark Bathrick and National Unmanned Aircraft Specialist Bradley Koeckeritz – are seizing the opportunity to determine whether unmanned aircraft can help combat raging wildfires.
The Paradise Fire in the Olympic National Park is serving as the test bed. The National Park Service (NPS) describes the Paradise Fire as “located well within Olympic National Park in the Queets Valley wilderness,” roughly 13 miles North/Northeast of Quinault, Washington. The fire was caused by “a lightning strike in late May but smoldered undetected until June 14.”
Firefighters on the ground and in fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft have battled the fire, which has engulfed roughly 2800 acres, for months. Aerospace professionals want to see what unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, can do.
Federal Government officials flew a ScanEagle unmanned aircraft system (UAS) from Insitu Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of The Boeing Company located in Bingen, Wash., over the Paradise Fire this month (just days ago, in fact).
The ScanEagle’s payload, including infrared and thermal imaging technology from FLIR in Wilsonville, Oregon, collected data that is proving valuable for real-time hot spot detection and fire map boundary detection. Armed with this information, helicopter pilots could concentrate on areas in most dire need of attention.
The sheer size and number of wildfires has stretched resources thin, however, and testing was cut short. It was determined that further testing could not be performed until more resources become available. Even so, Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark is thinking positive — unmanned aircraft could prove integral to fighting fires and this mil/aero geek couldn’t agree more.