Higher Education: Universities Aid Soaring Technology For Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

As the fast-moving wildfire advances toward a rocky ridge entangled in bone-dry underbrush, a copse of Ponderosa Pine and a dozen homes, the incident commander looks to his operations chief and gives the order, “Launch Little Bird 1, and give me an...


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He added, “If you look at wildland firefighting in the past 40 years, you’ll see a lack of situational awareness,” and that has been a problem. “The idea we have here is to develop a ground station with software capabilities that we can empower the incident commander to get a very good assessment of what is happening and what will happen using the simulation tools.”

State-based practical application

Cohen and West Virginia Forestry have formed a partnership to refine flight and software capabilities and tailor them to wildfire applications, according to Rodger Ozburn, one of three West Virginia regional fire specialists.

“It all started when a participant in the SIERRA Project took a wildland firefighting class from us and found out what was involved,” Ozburn said They were looking for some practical applications of unmanned aircraft in the fire service, he says, and the Division of Forestry saw the benefits to firefighting.

“I think (the technology) we are now seeing is pretty amazing. The platform flies well with an experienced pilot. The software has the ability for a user to program in a pre-designated flight path and provide video footage – in real time – which is pretty cool. It’s the ability to rapidly get eyes in the sky – that other perspective you typically don’t have,” Ozburn said.

For Ozburn, whose response area does not have the capacity to put a manned observation helicopter in the sky, the UAVs’ rapid deployment capability and their low cost are impressive. From his experience, a $5,000 system is credible, but even a $30,000 bird with all the bells and whistles pales in price comparison to a Hughes 500.

“We don’t have aerial resources here. For me to get a helicopter in my area is almost impossible,” he said. “If we had this resource, it would be invaluable, especially if you can fly past the line of sight. The thing we’re really looking forward to is testing when a natural disaster occurs. We could do some reconnaissance from a given point and get a broad picture of just what kind of situation we are facing. Actually, I think if we would’ve had this technology in our hands in early November we could’ve prioritized our saw crews who were clearing roads after Hurricane Sandy.”

The partnership with University of Cincinnati edges his department closer to that day.

“Conceptually speaking, we’re trying to bring about a change by working with firemen,” Cohen said. “We want to make sure what we’re making here is not just mathematical equations on paper but something that will be fully functional in the field.” n

Next: The potential for firefighting