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NASA Aircraft Aids Firefighting Effort

At the request of the California Office of Emergency Services and the National Interagency Fire Center, NASA flew four missions in an unmanned aircraft equipped with a thermal-infrared imaging system over numerous Southern California wildfires. The system, which can track and map hotspots through dense smoke, provided firefighters with near-real-time images and data to help them battle the blazes.

The NASA Ikhana departed Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) at approx. 8:30 AM PDT on Wednesday, October 24 for a nine-hour flight, returning imagery and data products from seven distinct fires. Morning activities were focused on the Harris and Witch fires, still burning out of control in San Diego county, and a cluster of fires at Camp Pendleton. During the afternoon, the aircraft also surveyed the Slide fire near Lake Arrowhead and several fires in northern Los Angeles county.

A total of 99 images captured by the Ames-designed autonomous multi-spectral (AMS) sensor were transmitted via satellite to the DFRC ground station. Within a few minutes after the images were acquired, the Collaborative Decision Environment (CDE) system—also developed at Ames--made them available for viewing to mission scientists and disaster management teams. The CDE is a decision support system for distributed mission planning, situational awareness, and data product visualization, using Google Earth as the visualization component. Users can also track the location of the Ikhana in Google Earth during missions.

Thursday’s eight-hour flight began with the Ranch and Grass Valley fires, then proceeded southward, ending at the Harris Fire on the Mexican border. During the afternoon, the aircraft revisited all eight fires surveyed to obtain images comparing morning and afternoon conditions. A similar mission on Friday included the Santiago fire in Irvine, which had not been previously imaged.

In response to State and National-level requests, NASA continued to support the firefighters through the weekend. As part of its final flight on Sunday, the Ikhana re-visited the site of last year's Esperanza Fire, to document recovery of the ecosystem. The aircraft had mapped the perimeter of the fire in a 16-hour mission on October 28, 2006.

Infrared imagery and fire perimeter maps from the Western States Fire Mission Project, Southern California wildfire support missions are available as a Google Earth overlay at

BACKGROUND: The Western States Fire Mission is demonstrating improved wildfire imaging and mapping capabilities of the sophisticated imaging sensor and real-time data communications equipment developed at Ames Research Center. The sensor is capable of peering through thick smoke and haze to record hot spots and the progression of wildfires over a lengthy period. Data is overlaid on Google Earth maps and downlinked in near-real time to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and made available to fire incident commanders to assist them in allocating their firefighting resources.

NASA’s Ikhana is a Predator B unmanned aircraft system built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and adapted for environmental science and technology research missions. Each flight is coordinated with the FAA to allow the remotely piloted aircraft to fly within the national airspace while maintaining separation from other aircraft.

NASA Ames unmanned aerial vehicles were prominently featured on a recent segment of Wired Science on PBS. The segment, which includes interviews with Intelligent Systems researchers Corey Ippolito and Chad Frost, is available on line at

Funding: Science Mission Directorate

Contact: Chad Frost


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