Infrared and GIS innovations allow air-attack teams to provide better intelligence to wildfire ground crews.
Over the years, air attacks have become more effective. They now can provide strategic intelligence to ground teams while being staged for very little cost. New innovations allow air attacks to see through smoke, have better situational awareness and transmit frontline fire maps and photos in near real time to ground teams.
One of the new innovations is inexpensive data transmission from the air. Simply e-mailing fire pictures from a camera phone works when there's a signal, but when cellular coverage is unavailable, airplanes have a reliable delivery alternative that costs about the same: the Iridium satellite network.
Another breakthrough lies in infrared (IR) technology, which has become significantly less expensive. IR cameras with the same resolution as the already proven Fire Watch Cobra from the U.S. Forest Service cost as little as $3,500, and are even less to install. Thanks to the commoditization of electronics, breakthrough technology has become smaller, more powerful and easier to use.
How easy? Air attacks and ground teams are very busy, and many find new technology intimidating. But their knowledge of how to view e-mail or photos on their phones puts new wildfire technology within reach. Using infrared in the plane is almost as easy as looking out a window; on the ground, IR photos display on phones and laptops. Using airborne Geographic Information System data is just as simple, and transmitting Google Earth map data is easier than sending an e-mail.
MAPS AND MORE
Cell phones don't always work in the remote areas where wildfires burn. Satellites, however, provide complete coverage. All federal fire aircraft send automatic flight-following, or AFF, pings every two minutes over Iridium satellites, allowing the aircraft to be tracked in real time via Google Earth or the AFF Web page. During the unused 119 seconds between AFF pings, software can transfer e-mail attachments that may include maps of hot spots and slopovers, infrared screen shots or regular photos.
The Latitude SkyNode S100 and S200, which have been in use for many years, make all of this possible. These integrated aeronautical communications devices include an interface that connects to any computer, and the free Latitude Messenger software can send e-mail attachments over the satellite link without complexity, prompts or interruption to AFF pings. Prior to flight, the user enters a single group e-mail address. While flying, the user can drag-and-drop any photo, map or IR image to the software applet, which will then deliver the file to everyone on the e-mail list.
Another useful application is airborne GIS. This simple moving map software can be overlaid with fire GIS and then saved as KML files. KML, or keyhole markup language, enables anyone with Google Earth installed to be one click away from viewing the highlighted fire line. Whether for extended or initial attack, this information can be sent to any firefighter with a picture phone, but generally the incident command team, dispatch, operations and situation units, and the geographic information systems specialist want it the most. Air-attack photos and maps then can be entered into incident GIS or just looked at by anybody wondering what is currently happening.
Of course, sending incident maps and IR images to the ground is of secondary concern for the air-attack team, which uses IR and GIS for safety and tactical reasons. Because this system is both hands-off and always on, it becomes another window in the airplane. Everything turns on automatically with the airplane and works without intervention, and it can be viewed at a glance when needed. Tracking crews through the smoke; discovering smokeless spot fires or lightning strikes at a glance; zooming into the name of every bump, creek and road; and instantly finding hand lines or drop points are all worth their weight in gold. Crews can catch fires that have jumped a road or crossed a creek when they're the size of a barbeque instead of an acre.
Gyro-stabilized, 360°-rotating gimbals are still great for extensive mapping, but simplicity has its benefits. A forward-looking infrared camera, or FLIR, is pointed strategically out the right window, where the air tactical group supervisor always looks. This is called SLIR, or side-looking infrared, and there are no moving parts or joysticks. Directionally oriented, moving-map "topos" that show agency boundaries, cultural features, aviation hazards and the fire perimeter improve safety and elevate situational awareness to a new level. A mouse click will zoom down to individual buildings, even with phone number and address. Nothing needs to be touched or operated. No third person is needed on the plane. For the first time, beginning infrared users need no training — using SLIR is as intuitive as looking out a window.
Not all air tactical group supervisors draw maps, but for those that do, drawing electronically becomes faster and easier than drawing on paper. Fire maps updated in the air can be instantly transmitted to the ground for the GIS specialist or anyone with Google Earth to see.
The ability to transmit over satellite is free with the Latitude system; no additional hardware or monthly base subscription is needed. The actual transmission time, like cellular airtime for phone calls, does cost money. Most fire drawings take about a minute to transfer, which costs about $1.00, so that dollar of airtime instantly delivers a fresh map to any number of people on the ground. Photos are larger and cost more.
Of course, if the air-attack crew is busy handling tankers, coordinating activities or helping the ground teams, they are too busy to draw and transmit anything. In such a situation, the IR+GIS system serves as a window that lets them see through smoke and darkness. On this basis alone, some aerial firefighters say IR+GIS is a 30% overall improvement in tactical effectiveness and possibly the best new thing since the use of airplanes for wildland firefighting.
On those windless mornings when the ground is so smoky that helicopters can't depart, the air-attack crew can safely fly in from a nearby airport and see down through the murk and smoke inversion. Up above the smoke in the clear blue sky, the air-attack crew can still keep those on the ground safe, when previously they would have just gone home.
Loading maps is simple and not too costly. DeLorme XMap 7 software, along with moving-map topos for all of the United States, costs just over $250.00. National Interagency Fire Center data usually arrives before the first flight. Every morning, teams upload their GIS data to ftp://ftp.nifc.gov, so downloading is as easy as surfing a Web page. The hard part is getting someone to walk out to the plane's computer to preload map data. Start DeLorme XMap 7 while on the ground, drag-and-drop the day's files onto the electronic map and save them to the computer's startup directory.
Infrared installation is similarly easy from a mechanic's perspective. IR must have an open-air view because it can't see through airplane windows. The preferred technique is to mount the camera inside the fuselage behind an inspection plate with a quarter-sized open hole. The Federal Aviation Administration has approved all installations using a 337 form, the same as other avionics. Inside the cockpit, the IR video is viewed on a $99.00 automobile headrest display mounted where the control panel meets the right side. The IR video is in the natural line of sight for both pilot and air tactical group supervisor, yet it does not block anyone's view of anything.
Hooking up the transmission system is less complicated than installing the IR camera. A serial cable is run from the existing AFF box — the SkyNode S200 requires a free firmware upgrade — to the aircraft's PC, and Latitude Messenger software is installed on the computer. Because it accepts only one e-mail address, the best practice is to create a group list that includes the e-mail addresses of anyone on the fire who wants to see maps and photos.
Clamshell laptops should not be used in the cockpit; it's best to use newer dual-core tablet PCs that are dedicated to the plane. Duplicate touch displays then can be wired into both the front and back seats for situations when a trainee comes along as part of cockpit resource management. The position feed comes from a Bluetooth, USB or avionics GPS.
Another great technique is to hang a standard- or high-definition camcorder in the air-attack plane's window with a four-cup suction mount. Consumer camcorders are cheap, small, light, very powerful and easy to use. Instead of using cameras with an internal hard disk, tape, DVD or CD, choose one that uses a solid-state, secure, digital high-capacity chip. A 32-gigabyte SDHC chip will capture a four-hour flight mission. With an extended-life battery installed, a crew can turn on the camera before a flight and forget about it.
The resulting video is incredibly useful. Whole fires have been translated to a map within a half hour after the first plane lands — long before mapping flights occur or the GIS team has assembled. Watching the post-flight video is almost like sitting in the back seat. The trick is to run the previously recorded DeLorme GPS track in one computer window with the camcorder video synchronized in another window, a second display or a TV. The moving-map window continually shows the precise location, and watching the rolling video is like looking out the plane's window. Without getting airsick, any map enthusiast can leisurely draw fire lines from the video until they're exactly right. The work of an entire team of field observers can be done in just a few minutes from the safety of an office. Infrared video also can be recorded and played in sync with visible video and GPS track.
The computer used to watch video — especially if in HD — needs to be powerful. One system can work on both the ground and in the air if it belongs to the air tactical group supervisor. A Windows 7 convertible (clamshell-style keyboard that folds underneath to make a tablet PC) with an outdoor viewable screen and an HD-playback-capable processor is a good choice.
As easy and cheap as it all is, only a handful of air-attack platforms have implemented IR+GIS. When ordering an air attack, "infrared" must be requested. So far, no one is charging extra for these capabilities because they all cost less than a single digital FM radio.
Those involved in air-attack platforms can learn more details, techniques and links at www.aerialfiretech.org. A white paper describes how to implement the system, and several shops, such as Courtney Aviation, will perform turnkey installations.
These innovations can provide cost- and time-effective breakthroughs in fire management. Whether providing strategic intelligence to the IC team or improving air-attack effectiveness and tactics, low-cost infrared and airborne GIS have become something to consider on every mission.
Mark Zaller is an air-attack pilot. Dan Ward is an air-attack pilot, air tactical group supervisor and retired battalion chief.