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NASA Imaging Tools Provide Firefighting Support

NASA flew unmanned aircraft equipped with a thermal-infrared imaging system over much of California last week, gathering information that helped fight more than 300 wildfires burning within the state. The flights by NASA’s unmanned Ikhana aircraft used a sophisticated Autonomous Modular Scanner developed at Ames Research Center. Ikhana’s onboard sensor has specialized filters to detect light energy at visible, infrared, and thermal wavelengths. It can detect temperature differences from less than one-half degree to approximately 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 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.

Images are collected onboard the Ikhana and transmitted through a communications satellite to NASA Ames, where they are superimposed over Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth maps to better visualize the location and scope of the fires. The imagery is then transmitted to the Multi-Agency Coordination Center in Redding and the State Operations Center in Sacramento, which distributes it to incident commanders in the field, so they can deploy resources where it will have the greatest benefit. The flights provide critical information about the location, size and terrain around the fires to commanders in the field in as little as 10 minutes.

The Ikhana aircraft is imaging almost 4,000 square miles from Santa Barbara north to the Oregon border. On July 8 it flew for more than nine hours and covered approximately 10 individual and complex fires along a route over the Sierra Nevadas, west to the Cub Complex fires, and south to the Gap Fire in Santa Barbara County. A hotspot detected when flying over Butte County prompted a mandatory evacuation for 10,000 people in Paradise.

Representatives of the “GeoCam” Google/NASA Disaster Response Project in the Ames Intelligent Robotics Group visited the Basin wildfire to brief fire responders about real-time thermal imaging data provided by the Ikhana. Incident Commander GeoCam members also deployed integrated camera/GPS units to forward observers on the fire line, and displayed the resulting photos in context in Google Earth at a fire team planning meeting. Michael Dietrich from the U.S. Forest Service said that knowing the location of the fire perimeter in real time was very useful for their decision-making.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited Ames on Monday to understand first hand how NASA is helping firefighters battle the widespread wildfires raging throughout the state. During his visit, Schwarzenegger reviewed firefighting data at the simulation facility used to display visible light and fire imagery, and saw a demonstration of the Hyperwall-2, a high-resolution visualization system displaying images from the wildfires. At a press conference held during his visit, the governor described the Ikhana as “one more incredible tool that we are able to use this year to bring real-time pictures and data to fire commanders, even when our other aircraft are unable to fly,” and expressed his appreciation for NASA’s assistance.

NASA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service partnered to obtain imagery of the wildfires in response to requests from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, and the National Interagency Fire Center. An additional five-hour mission flown on July 19 imaged the American River, Camp (BTU), and Canyon fires and the Independence mudslide.

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. The 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. The system was proven during a series of wildfire imaging demonstration missions in August and September 2007. At the request of the California Office of Emergency Services and the National Interagency Fire Center, NASA flew four Ikhana missions over the October, 2007 Southern California wildfires.

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. 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 “GeoCam” Google/NASA Disaster Response Project in the Intelligent Robotics Group aims to improve situational awareness of disaster responders using georeferenced photos.

NASA PROGRAM FUNDING: Science Mission Directorate

Contact: Chad Frost


The Autonomous Modular Scanner carried aboard NASA's Ikhana unmanned aircraft captured this image of the Gap Fire in Santa Barbara County, CA, on July, 8 2008. The hot spots of the fire are visible in the middle of the image. They appear as yellow pixels in the center of the pink region. The red, pink, and blue tones map out burned areas. Multiple California state agencies distributed the information to fire officials minutes after collection for analysis of new fire locations and fire size.

NASA's unmanned Ikhana aircraft provided firefighters with real-time multispectral fire imagery, collected from an autonomous onboard sensor and transmitted to the web for use in various visualization tools, including GoogleEarth. The path of the Ikhana's July 8, 2008 mission is shown in green, and the path of the July 19, 2008 mission in red.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joined NASA and federal and state fire officials at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field to tour the facility and discussed the important role of NASA’s remotely piloted aircraft to California’s firefight. Ames scientists are partnering with colleagues at Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., to send NASA’s remotely piloted Ikhana aircraft on reconnaissance flights using sophisticated visual and thermal sensors to provide up-to-the-minute information to firefighters in the field.

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