The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Forest Service tested the aerospace agency's unmanned aerial vehicles armed with thermal-imaging sensors in order to aid firefighters tasked with combating October's Southern California wildfires.

During the wildfires, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., tested a remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system — dubbed Ikhana and manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GAAS) — to demonstrate imaging and real-time communications capabilities, and to test a series of thermal-imaging sensors. Specifically, the Autonomous Modular Scanner thermal-imaging sensor, designed and built at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, was configured to observe fires and other high-temperature sources. The scanner can detect temperature differences from less than one-half degree to approximately 1000° F, a level of accuracy that is important in order to improve fire mapping, said Everett Hinkley, liaison and special project program manager for the Forest Service.

These types of thermal-imaging sensors were attached to the wing mount of a UAV and captured images of the wildfires while flying more than 1200 miles over a 10-hour period, Hinkley said. NASA and GAAS pilots operated the aircraft from a ground control station at Dryden, which is located at Edwards Air Force Base.

The test demonstrated the ability of UAVs to collect thermal-imaging data continuously for 12 to 24 hours, Hinkley said. A SATCOM satellite link supported the real-time transfer of the data, which was simultaneously available to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho; as a Google Earth overlay; and through NASA's Open Geospatial Consortium Web services.

“We flew the vehicle four out of the six fire days, and it was a very beneficial to the incident command on the ground,” Hinkley said.

Scientists from both agencies also are testing the Collaborative Decision Environment software, a new application originally developed by NASA for the Mars Exploration Rovers. The software acts as an interactive tool that lets command-and-control personnel share imagery of critical fire events with members of the response team, Hinkley said.