SEATTLE — Officials fighting a forest fire in Olympic National Park say they successfully used a drone this week to get overhead, infrared video to steer water-dropping helicopters to their target.
“They were watching a live feed and were able to direct helicopter bucket drops to heat,” said Brentwood Reid, fire information officer for the Paradise fire. “Because the forest canopy is so dense, it’s very difficult to detect hot spots and even the fire’s edge.”
The weeklong test was the first time the Department of the Interior has operated a drone in firefighting, but it’s likely not the last.
The ScanEagle drone used at the Paradise fire was designed and built by Boeing’s unmanned aerial vehicle subsidiary InSitu in Bingen, Wash., and provided by the company at no direct cost to the government as an operational test.
The Department of the Interior is testing the use of various drones for wildfire suppression this year, though it’s likely to be several years before they are deployed in significant numbers.
“We have to determine how we’ll safely integrate these things into our existing tactical aircraft fire traffic area,” said Brad Koeckeritz, Interior’s national unmanned aircraft specialist. “By next year, we’ll see increased usage. It’ll be consistent growth of these (unmanned) aircraft as time goes on.”
Koeckeritz said the ScanEagle test over the Paradise fire in the Olympic National Park was “highly successful.”
Fire managers “were able to see through the smoke very clearly. They were able to determine the intensity of the fire and clearly see the fire’s edge,” Koeckeritz said.
In addition to using drones on surveillance missions, Koeckeritz said that in Boise, Idaho, this October, Interior will also test an “optionally manned” helicopter for delivering supplies and water to firefighters.
Such a vehicle could be piloted on clear days but sent up unmanned at times when manned helicopters cannot fly, either at night or when smoke reduces visibility.
With fires burning throughout Washington state and across the western U.S., manned aircraft, both helicopters and fixed wing planes, are spread thin.
The ScanEagle drone, which first flew in 2002, weighs approximately 50 pounds, and is about 5 feet long with a wingspan of just over 10 feet. It flew over the Paradise fire at an altitude of 9,500 feet.
It’s launched by a mobile catapult and upon its return from a mission, it is caught via a rope suspended from a boom that snags the drone’s upturned wingtips.
The ScanEagle system was originally developed to track shoals of fish from Pacific Ocean fishing boats. Later, it was successfully deployed by the U.S. Marines in combat operations in Iraq and subsequently became a standard surveillance tool for the U.S. military.
The 2,800-acre Paradise fire was detected in mid-June. The statewide drought has affected even the Olympic Peninsula rainforest, where Reid said the snowpack on the mountains is 14 percent of normal and melted off four months earlier than usual.
In the area of the wildfire, large dead trees are dried out and provide heavy fuel for the blaze. It’s also burning as much as 6 inches deep into the forest duff — a thick matt on the forest floor composed of years of dead leaves and other organic material.
Unlike live trees which may burn only superficially as a fire passes through, such deep fuel, said Reid, “will burn and burn and burn.”
Because of the high fuel load and steep canyons in the area, it’s too dangerous to try to attack the interior of the fire. The strategy then is to let it burn clean in the interior and confine it on the edges.
About 30 firefighters on the ground and two helicopter crews have been deployed to create containment lines to prevent the fire spreading west.
All were pulled out Friday as rain came in, because manned aircraft wouldn’t be able to fly and assist in case of an emergency.
The fire-fighting airplanes in use now in eastern Washington cost millions of dollars and are mostly provided to the government by private contractors at a cost of $27,000 per day, plus $10,000 per hour of flying.
Buying a ScanEagle system costs much less than a manned aircraft. Koeckeritz said the government will likely set up a similar private contracting system for fire-fighting drones.
Unmanned and relatively cheap, drones present a much lower risk if anything goes wrong.
As a result, said Reid, the National Park Service is considering using drones for other missions, including search and rescue operations.