Kale Casey almost can’t believe what a metal bird 5 feet long, weighing 44 pounds with wings spanning 10 feet, can do to help fight a wildfire.
“For eight hours a night, without getting tired, without needing a meal … scanning the landscape, mapping, searching for hotspots,” Casey, a fire information officer for the Taylor Creek Fire, reeled off. “It’s by far the most impressive tool I’ve seen in my wildfire career. It’s the best friend a firefighter could have.”
The ScanEagle unmanned aircraft system, or UAS – what some would call a drone – has been monitoring the Taylor Creek Fire west of Grants Pass every night for over two weeks. It also spent time on the Grave Creek Fire north of Wimer, and has logged 110 flight hours in 16 flights, according to ScanEagle.
Unlike other aircraft, it flies in smoke, at night, and provides real-time information to firefighters on the ground, detecting hotspots, providing a previously unattainable scan of wildfires without the concern of pilot safety. It has a range of over 50 miles with six gallons of gas, and can fly for more than 20 hours.
This isn’t a toy from a department store. More like a possible mini-revolution in firefighting.
“At some point you’ll have an unmanned system over every fire,” said Paul Allen, account manager for Insitu, a company based in the Columbia River Gorge town of Bingen, Washington that makes the ScanEagle. “We can operate in conditions where it’s really hazardous for manned aircraft.”
On a ridgetop in southern Douglas County on a recent Tuesday night, amid slash piles left from a clearcut, a team of four men launched the ScanEagle, which carried infrared and electro-optical cameras along with tactical fire-mapping equipment.
Three of the people on site were Insitu aircraft operators and were led by Ty Sibley, who’s worked with the company’s drones for nine years.
“We’re all real pilots, too,” Sibley said. “We all fly real planes.
“In the aviation community, we don’t get a lot of respect as drone pilots, but it’s getting better.”
Sibley has a commercial pilot’s license, Justin Coats holds a commercial helicopter pilot’s license, and Gabe Garriga is licensed to fly private planes.
“We understand airspace and the complexity of weather and where there could be other airplanes flying by,” Sibley said. “We take it pretty serious.”
Sibley served two six-month tours in Iraq, operating drones from forward operating bases, and also launched them from patrol boats.
He prepped the ScanEagle for its mission alongside the pneumatic launcher that would slingshot the aircraft into the night sky. A meticulous 20-minute period of completing a pre-flight checklist preceded the drone’s takeoff.
At 9:42 p.m., the bird was airborne. It would ascend over the launch site on a corkscrew-shaped flight path to about 8,000 feet before heading toward the fire zone, where it flies at 5,000 feet. Sibley said it would return at 5 a.m., seven and a half hours later, snagged out of midair by a stationary cable that is grasped by a wingtip hook, guided by dual GPS units on both the aircraft and the towering snare.
Pilots take two-hour shifts guiding the drone and aiming its camera at the landscape. The infrared camera can detect a hotspot the size of a dinner plate from more than a mile away, and those watching the video feed can communicate with firefighters on the ground to direct them to problem areas that can’t be seen in the dark.
J.D. Morton works for the Bureau of Land Management as a smokejumper out of Fairbanks, Alaska. He’s the firefighting liaison who helps get information from the ScanEagle to crews on the ground. He explained the benefits of sending the drone up after dark, drawing a circle in the dirt about 10 inches in diameter.
“Something that small in the day won’t be putting up enough smoke,” Morton said. “Three hundred acres and you’re looking for that?
“That’s why we fly at night, because it’s a lot easier to see on the IR (infrared) camera. During the day, that size of a piece of a heat would be very, very challenging. You’d miss it, something that small.”
Insitu employees control the bird and monitor its work on computers inside a truck from the remote mountain, several miles from the fire. There’s no joystick to fly the drone, although one is used to control the camera.
“With ScanEagle, you click on the map with a mouse and tell the airplane where to go,” Casey said.
Casey said on a recent Monday night the ScanEagle found a hotspot near Chrome Ridge Road on the west side of the fire, which firefighters were sent to douse.
“Let’s put it this way, when spot fires get established, it creates a lot of work,” Casey said. “It’s a tough firefight in the middle of the night. And these are 30-plus-day fires, a marathon, with a lot of wear and tear on firefighters.
“(With the ScanEagle) you have a nice radio alert, find the piece of heat and walk over and take care of it.”
Unmanned aircraft systems have become part of wildland firefighting only in the last few years. In 2017 federal firefighters used them on 340 wildfires in Oregon, the most missions among 12 states where they were used, according to the Department of Interior.
This year it’s reached a new level. The unmanned systems are being treated more like helicopters and airplanes, with a $17 million, on-call contract awarded by the Department of the Interior to four companies.
One of them is Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary that developed the ScanEagle from its original use of spotting fish in the ocean some 24 years ago.
It started flying for the U.S. Marines in 2004, and since then it’s grown into a worldwide business, serving the military of over 20 countries. It has also been used in recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year and other weather disasters.
The company has logged more than 1 million flight hours with drones.
At any one time, 20 of the ScanEagles are flying somewhere around the globe, said company spokesperson Monica Golden.
The ScanEagle can be seen in use by the U.S. Navy in the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips,” a true story starring Tom Hanks about Somali pirates taking over a ship in a four-day siege.
Golden said the company first flew a ScanEagle on a fire in 2015 in its proving ground stages. But it became intimately involved with the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge in 2017.
That fire started on the Oregon side of the gorge, then jumped the river not far from Insitu’s headquarters in Bingen.
“Some of our employees were being evacuated. We said, ‘How can we help?”’ Golden said.
The same geospatial maps that ScanEagle spit out at Eagle Creek are produced for the Taylor Creek Fire, and they’re ready for fire managers within a couple of hours of the drone landing, making planning more efficient.
“Previously they’d get information from the last flight of the day before,” Golden said. “That’s all they had to work with at the 6 a.m. meeting. That info is eight or 12 hours old. The fire could have done all kinds of things. We can give them up-to-the minute info.”
The ScanEagle has a 1.9-horsepower, two-stroke gas engine, and can hit 92 mph.
When crisscrossing a fire, it cruises at 50 or 55 mph, Allen said.
Casey said there was a lot of resistance to using unmanned systems in firefighting, as unsanctioned private copter-style drones have grounded aircraft by flying too close.
It happened just north of Grants Pass in July 2016, when a hobby drone kept an Oregon Department of Forestry helicopter from dumping water on a fire alongside Interstate 5.
The Federal Aviation Administration has had to update is regulations to adapt to drones.
“Even last year, if you were at a regional briefing, you would have heard concerns from the aviation community about integrating drones and pilots on the same landscape,” Casey said.
Airports near wildfires, such as the Grants Pass Airport in Merlin, have temporary flight restrictions – closed airspace areas – keeping other pilots from colliding with wildfire aircraft, including unmanned systems.
Casey added that two other smaller copter-style drones, with 4-foot wingspans, have been used on the Taylor Creek to drop incendiary “pingpong balls” to light backfires. Casey said it’s the first fire this has been done on.
“It’s the perfect size, perfect tool,” he said. “It’s been helping with burnouts along Galice Road and Bear Camp Road.”
Casey was unable to provide a per-hour flight cost for using a drone on the fires, but said it would take an additional 1.5 helicopters to “do the same thing.”
With the cost of fuel, fuel trucks and associated costs for flying helicopters, flying the drone is significantly cheaper than the cost of flying helicopters on wildfires, Casey said.
He said the success of the unmanned flights has brought assurance to the aviation community “even though it took them a while to realize we have this incredible tool.”
“We’re now as grateful as we could be to have the eyes in the sky, seeing through the smoke,” Casey said. “You have a tireless friend in the sky that has your back.”
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