September 24, 2008 By Chandler Harris
Last June wasn't even the official beginning of the California fire season, but it was already a firefighting nightmare for California firefighting officials. With more than 2,000 fires caused by an unusual lightning storm, scorching more than 900,000 acres and more than 122 homes, it was the largest single fire event ever recorded in California.
California fire officials sent a request for help and received it when more than 25,000 firefighters arrived from 41 states and as far away as Canada, Greece, Australia and Mexico to help California firefighters. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also sent an emergency request for imagery from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who has been developing fire fighting technology in conjunction with the United States Forest Service. NASA responded by providing advanced views from space and from unmanned flights before, during, and after fires. The mapping information allowed California firefighting officials to respond to wildfires quickly and effectively allocate resources, and how to best battle the fires.
NASA's Ikhana Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)-which is basically an unmanned remote-controlled plane-made several aerial flights over large California wildfires from Santa Barbara to the Oregon border to capture digital fire imagery. Ikhana, which is a Native-American word that means intelligent, conscious, or aware, is a Predator B unmanned aircraft similar to the drones used by the military in Iraq and for border security. NASA attached to the UAV a multi-spectral wildfire sensor called the Airborne Infrared Disaster Assessment System (AIRDAS), which was developed specifically for fire observation and control. After FAA approval of the Ikhana, the UAV was used during this year's California wildfires.
The Ikhana is remotely controlled from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. The Ikhana's AIRDAS uses thermal infrared imaging technology and data telemetry to provide accurate wildfire data. The thermal images are sent through a communications satellite to NASA's Ames center. There they are integrated into a GIS format and transmitted back to ground stations for processing and integrated into Google Earth and other GIS formats. The information is relayed to fire commanders on the ground, in as little as 10 minutes, helping them assess fire fronts, the hottest parts of a fire that are burning, direction and speed of the fire.
"The advantages (of the Ikhana) is we don't risk pilots in hazardous situations such as flying over a wildfire where they might run into smoke situations or turbulence, and the capability of flying for long periods of time, where you can stay in the air for many hours," said Stephen Ambrose program manager at NASA's headquarters for disaster management.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called the drone one of the most exciting new weapons in California's firefighting arsenal. NASA plans to include UAVs like Ikhana for a network of devices that will monitor natural disasters at different scales, from satellite imagery down to ground-level data.
NASA has also provided firefighters in California and the rest of the world access to the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Rapid Response System, which provides daily satellite images of the Earth's landmasses in near real time. MODIS uses a variety of sensors that detect electromagnetic radiation such as infrared heat and visible light. Once data on smoke and fire radiation is sent back to earth, NASA geographers merge it with maps of local roads, topography, vegetation and population density, and send it to firefighting operations across the world. The U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry have used the true-color, photo-like imagery, and false-color imagery to track fires.
"The success lies in getting the information to the field units and fire fighters as soon as possible, to the emergency services control rooms or situation rooms, as well as other users that use the fire information, for use in their strategic and tactical firefighting," Ambrose said.