- Associated Press - Thursday, September 17, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A high-tech drone is spending a week flying over a west-central Idaho wildfire to see if it’s capable of supplying real-time information that incident commanders can use when directing ground-based firefighters and manned aircraft.

Testing of the 55-pound craft with a 12-foot wingspan is scheduled to start Thursday night, Air Operations Branch Director Gary Munson of the U.S. Forest Service said. “If the night flights go well, we hope to gradually integrate it into daytime operations,” Munson said.

The Aerosonde Mark 4.7 operated by Textron Systems launches from a catapult and is recovered with a large net. It can cruise at up to 70 mph. The company in an email to The Associated Press said the system has more than 100,000 flight hours with flights in hurricanes and in the Arctic, but this is its first use on wildfires.

The “aircraft’s sensors can give responders real-time date on fire growth, burn intensity, fuels and heat concentrations,” the company said. It also said data supplied by the vehicle can be used by fire managers to look at erosion risks and impacts on wildlife and vegetation in remote areas.

Wildfire managers say they currently lack a good way to determine the exact location of a fire on days when smoke or clouds obscure visibility, typically during inversions when smoke is trapped in valleys. The craft’s infrared camera can see through smoke and clouds.

The craft is operated from a trailer by a pilot and another person who controls the cameras. Eventually, fire bosses could use a secure website and a tablet such as an iPad to view real-time images from the drone, Munson said.

The drone that can stay aloft for 15 hours could improve radio communications for ground-based firefighters, he said. In his 21 years of working wildfires he’s aware of several instances where firefighters were overcome by flames and had to deploy fire shelters because of faulty communications, Munson said. No deaths resulted from those instances, he said.

Brad Koeckeritz, unmanned aircraft manager for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the tests in Idaho are one of three demonstrations being done this fire season and include two other companies. Earlier this summer, officials tested a drone made by Boeing subsidiary InSitu on a wildfire in Washington states’ Olympic National Park.

“It was very successful,” Koeckeritz said. “We were able to look through very thick smoke and assist the helicopter pilots with bucket drops and see where the drops hit.”

He said federal firefighting officials are also interested in an unmanned helicopter built by Lockheed Martin that could be used to make water drops at night, a scenario fire managers say is too dangerous to risk human pilots.

Camera reconnaissance drones will likely start operating on a limited basis on wildfires next year, with use increasing in subsequent years, Koeckeritz said.

Munson said the drone testing in Idaho is designed so the craft won’t fly over private property or wilderness areas. Policies will likely have to be worked out concerning drone flights over private property should the crafts be used in actual firefighting situations where homes and lives are at risk, he said.

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