US Forest Service trials will test performance of unmanned communications relay above blazes in remote areas

The US Forest Service (USFS) this month plans to kick off a long series of demonstrations to investigate potential uses of low- to medium-altitude unmanned air vehicles in wildland firefighting operations. “We will operate UAVs,” says Thomas Zajkowski, of the USFS remote sensing applications centre. “It’s just not a near-term operation right now.”

But live demonstrations spread over several years should help the agency move toward that goal, he says. Each of the two major events planned so far involve inserting UAVs directly into real-time firefighting operations at the height of the fire season.

“We don’t want to do a dog and pony show,” says Zajkowski. “We’re not looking to buy 1,000 UAVs. We are looking for people to provide that as a service. But we need to be an informed user.”

The agency will on 11 July launch a three-day demonstration of three small UAVs – the fixed-wing RuR AFV-3 and MLB Bat 3 vehicles, plus Yamaha’s rotary-wing RMAX. The latter is taking part because there happens to be a NASA-owned RMAX based at the location of the event – Moffett Field at the NASA Ames Research Center, California.

The small UAV is wanted as a communications relay, which would replace temporary radio repeaters now used by the agency. This UAV also would be used to transmit weather readings from directly above a fire, a spot the agency considers too dangerous for manned aircraft. The USFS also wants the UAV to have a real-time datalink, 4-8h endurance and cost no more to buy and operate than the aircraft it would replace.

A follow-on demonstration has already been scheduled for August 2006, involving NASA’s Altair UAV – an early model of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems RQ-1 Predator.

The medium-altitude, long-endurance aircraft will be used to provide a real-time video feed from the scene of a remote wildland fire, says Zajkowski. However, the official acknowledges that it is unclear how a Predator-type vehicle will fit into the USFS’s budget plans. An internal agency analysis shows that large UAVs are more costly and harder to support than the manned aircraft the USFS already uses.

The demonstration is the product of a USFS-NASA partnership. “NASA wants to demonstrate their technology and how UAVs can use the national airspace,” says Zajkowski. “For the forest service, we’re interested in what the technology can do for our programmes right now. But I think both groups are getting what they want out of this mission.”


Source: Flight International