As wildfire season on the West Coast stretches longer each year, with fires scorching through record levels of acreage and burning down entire communities, scientists at NASA Ames want to utilize drones and other aerospace technology to help modernize firefighting for the better.
While some aspects of wildland firefighting have majorly evolved in recent history — such as recognizing the value of controlled burns as a fire prevention measure — other facets remain largely unchanged. For instance, firefighters still communicate via two-way radios, the way it's been done since the 1950s. And with human safety always the priority, operations often get put on pause when the sun goes down or smoky conditions make it too unsafe for people to be in the thick of things.
NASA's new Advanced Capabilities for Emergency Response Operations project, or the ACERO project, aims to make wildland firefighting more effective by putting drones to work.
"Firefighters often operate in environments where they can't easily communicate with each other, or the systems that they do use to communicate may not interoperate," Dr. Marcus Johnson, ACERO project manager, said in an interview. "(As) the fire gets bigger and bigger, more people come to help support and the challenges get even more robust."
The ACERO project's approach to improving communication amongst firefighters is two-fold. First, Johnson said, the way information is exchanged needs to be modernized.
"One of the challenges that we have right now in firefighting activity is that, for the most part, (they communicate) over two-way radios," Johnson said. "Nothing is digital right now. One of the advancements that we're trying to make is starting to digitize their operations such that they can allow for different types of aircraft to enter to support the operation."
Once communication is digitized, drones can make their way onto the scene. The ACERO project envisions using drones as communication nodes in the sky, to allow information to be exchanged not only amongst firefighters, but also with the general public that may need to receive evacuation notices.
Drones can also be used to watch fires from above, providing critical information for those with boots on the ground. Johnson said it's like having "an eye in the sky."
"Being able to monitor these fires (allows) firefighters to make more informed decisions by getting that key information," Johnson said.
The ACERO project scientists also envision using drones to move vital equipment and goods like hoses, water and food to the front of the fire lines: "To have drones really be the workhorse, especially in areas that are hard to traverse via cars and other such modes of mobility," Johnson said.
Drones could also be used to make aerial fire suppression safer and more effective. ACERO project scientists want to equip fire suppression helicopters — which carry hundreds of gallons of water or fire retardant to help quench fires — with automation technology to make those missions safer and more efficient.
"If there's heavy smoke or it's nighttime, they ground those operations," Johnson said. "So we're looking at trying to really extend those operations by the use of drones, and being able to control the aircraft from the ground as opposed to putting that pilot at risk."
While the ACERO project is in its early stages, Johnson said NASA is already in communication with agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and CalFire to help bring a unified vision for the future of wildland firefighting to fruition.
"Our current task right now is looking at coming up with a concept of operations that tries to unify how we want to include technology into modernizing wildland firefighting," Johnson said.
Some of the project's bigger goals, like incorporating drones into fire suppression, may take five to seven years to get off the ground. But Johnson said he and his team are motivated to get there — both professionally and personally.
"Every year, the big news for wildfires, often, is on the West Coast, and California unfortunately bears the brunt of those," Johnson said. "The folks that are impacted (work) at NASA Ames — our staff are the ones that are impacted by this problem.
"So there's passion that goes into the work."