NASA tests remote craft to gather wildfire data

NASA tests remote craft to gather wildfire data

The Altus II remotely piloted aircraft recently transmitted images of wildfires to firefighters in near-real time via the Internet.

NASA researchers in California, a state often plagued by wildfires, are testing a remotely piloted aircraft that could send real-time aerial pictures of blazes to firefighters over the Internet.

They hope to show that an unmanned plane could fly much longer flights than could planes with human pilots and transmit photos directly to a Web site to speed information to workers on the ground.

The uninhabited aerial vehicle, Altus II, took off this month from a dry lake bed near NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California.

'Unfortunately, it's a really bad time for fires,' said Steven Wegener, a physical scientist in the Earth Science Division at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.

Although NASA isn't chartered to conduct firefighting operations, researchers wanted to highlight the computer and aircraft technology that could aid future firefighters.
The real-time or near-real-time images from Altus II can be coordinated with geographic information system software. The plane has its own IP address.

'We've got an Internet port in the sky,' Wegener said.

The craft's downward-looking TV camera grabs 720- by 640-pixel JPEG snapshots and transmits them via File Transfer Protocol over a satellite link.

A site to see

The ground crew posts the JPEGs on the Web site directly from the airplane, Wegener said.

Then a programmer on the ground runs scan-correction routines on the JPEG and its associated navigational data, and projects that image onto a coordinate system for GIS maps, Wegener said.

Within 15 minutes, the programmer posts a GIS-linked image that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Red Cross or local disaster officials can access, Wegener said. The image, in World TIFF format, has a special metadata header for GIS engines.

The craft's four-channel, multispectral scanner takes images in the deep thermal infrared region, meaning that it can 'see' through dense smoke, Wegener said.

The Altus II grew out of a NASA aeronautics project with four aircraft companies. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego developed the Altus II, Wegener said.

The craft could stay up in dangerous situations for as long as 24 hours, much longer than a piloted plane, Wegener said. For example, it could fly near an erupting volcano or into a hurricane.

The Altus II uses the same sophisticated autopilot instruments that piloted planes use, except that a human on the ground steps in when autopilot mode can't be used. 'They've basically put the pilot on the ground,' Wegener said.

NASA officials have proposed three 24-hour test flights over the western half of the country next year, Wegener said. If the flights coincide with the usual fire season, such as next August, each flight might cover up to 40 fires in one 24-hour period.


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