Insitu’s ScanEagle in Paradise Fire ops

Insitu’s ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) has flown more than one million flight hours and more than 120,000 sorties. Unlike the bigger MQ-1 Predator/MQ-9 Reaper it doesn’t get the media exposure because it doesn’t drop bombs and would not be termed as a ‘drone’ by the national media. As Insitu’s Paul Allen told me “We just look at things.” That doesn’t generally get people too excited.

Previous to becoming the Key Account Manager, Commercial Solutions at Insitu, USA, Paul was the program manager for Insitu’s Commercial Programe Office. He oversaw three historic firsts: Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) UAS operations in Denmark, BVLOS operations in the continental US flying for BNSF Railway in New Mexico, and the first UAS operations in support of fire suppression at the Paradise Fire in Washington state for the United States Department of the Interior (DOI).

Paul told me: “Dense smoke and night operations are hazardous for manned aircraft, and the infra-red imagery coming from some aircraft can be sporadic at best. Knowing fire movement and intensity is important, but often the agencies don’t know what is going on when they have no visibility.

“The Paradise Fire in 2015 saw our ability to launch and recover in remote locations as being integral in being able to operate in mountainous terrain. The helicopter base was far away and was not inside the temporary flight restriction. Insitu personnel drove across 26 miles of rugged logging roads to get where they wanted to set up.

“Everything was co-ordinated with the US DOI and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), so all the airspace authorisations were made. Then we co-ordinated with one of two helicopter pilots working on the fire, however, one pilot decided that the ops were too dynamic for him to work with a UAS. The second pilot was willing to talk to us.

“To ensure we were safely integrated but separate, we always had a minimum of 1,000 foot altitude separation. We also established a geo-fence, where we stayed on the north side and the helicopters stayed south of the geo-fence until we were comfortable, and at that point we flew above them.

“The helicopters were operating in a river canyon, with 150 feet of canopy and very dense smoke. However, the Scan Eagle’s medium-wave infra-red (MWIR) could easily see through the smoke to the hotspots.

“The first helicopter (which did not have contact with ScanEagle) picked up the water in its bambi-bucket from the river and flew out to the fire. The pilot climbed up and dropped the water over the fire but missed, and the hot-spots popped up on the UAS imagery.

The second pilot was given voice commands from Insitu’s crew, such as “two rotor widths north, four rotor widths west, now drop.” We were getting him very efficient and the pilot was getting the water on the drop.

One day Insitu hopes to go a step further by data-linking the imagery down to a remote terminal or tablet inside the helicopter or air tanker, so the pilot can see the exact location. But before that happens, the pilots will need to train before adding another dynamic to a very dangerous situation.

Alan Warnes