Press Release

Remotely Piloted Aircraft to Provide Images on Internet for Firefighters

By SpaceRef Editor
September 5, 2001
Filed under ,

A remotely piloted aircraft will demonstrate how to provide life-saving
images of wildfires to firefighters in near real-time via the Internet on
Thursday, Sept. 6.

Called Altus II, the experimental “uninhabited aerial vehicle”(UAV),
carrying 200 pounds (90 kg) of camera and communications gear, will fly at
10,000 to 15,000 feet (3,000 to 4,500 m) altitude over a small, controlled
fire near an airfield in Southern California. The airplane can fly high
enough for a wide view and carries a TV camera as well as a digital
multi-spectral scanner that can spot flames through smoke.

“The focus of the UAV disaster monitoring program is getting the right
information to the right people at the right time,” said Steve Wegener, a
scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley.
Wegener is leading the sensors and science portion of the project. “In the
case of fires, we are providing wide-view aerial fire images that disaster
managers have never had before and that they can overlay on maps that show
exact locations of assets such as fire engines. The firemen can react more
quickly to emergencies, and send assets to trouble spots,” Wegener

The research team includes NASA’s Environmental Research Aircraft and
Sensor Technology project (ERAST), the California Resources Agency, the
U.S. Forest Service, Los Angeles County and the National Interagency Fire
Center, Boise, Idaho. The team is cooperating in the First Response
Experiment that combines unpiloted aircraft, remote sensors and advanced
information technology to send over-the-horizon pictures and data to the
Internet in near real time.

During the flight demonstration, Altus will take off from a small dry
lakebed located south of NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards,

The remotely piloted plane sends images and other data to the InMarsat
satellite. Communications systems in Australia and other locations around
the world receive the satellite’s signals. This digital information is
transferred to NASA Ames for real-time image processing. Ames scientists
then overlay the fire information on maps and post them on the Internet.
The entire process takes 10 to 15 minutes.

Although fire management agencies currently use piloted planes to observe
fires, these planes usually fly lower, view a smaller area, and often must
land to provide images for interpretation and delivery to command posts,
according to Wegener. “The delay can be significant when getting images on
a timely basis is crucial,” he said.

“We hope the combination of sensors, UAV technology and Internet delivery
will mature so that it can help firefighters view and combat large fires
that exceed local capabilities,” Wegener said. “We are developing this
technology to enable people to better manage many kinds of disasters
including fires, floods and earthquakes. During the next three years we
expect to conduct three UAV disaster demonstrations,” he added.

The research team is proposing another project that may use a bigger UAV,
the Altair, that has a 64-ft. (19.2 m) wingspan, and can fly as high as
52,000 ft. (15,600 m). That aircraft can fly more fire-monitoring
instruments further and for a longer time than the smaller Altus that has a
55-ft. (16.5 m) wingspan and can fly up to 45,000 ft. (13,500 m) in one
configuration. Altair has a 4,200-mi. (6,720 km) range, and can stay aloft
as long as 32 hours. Altair can carry a thermal imager capable of seeing
through smoke, and may also fly a small synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) that
can see through water vapor, clouds and smoke. SAR can provide very
detailed images of flooding, damaged buildings and other infrastructures
difficult to detect, especially in bad weather.

Near real-time delivery of aerial images and data via the Internet can
enable anyone to pinpoint key disaster locations, including roads, schools,
homes and flood plains, Wegener said. Scientists also foresee using the
emerging UAV technology to monitor other conditions on Earth such as
climate change, air quality and crop conditions.

Real-time imagery of the controlled burn experiment can be seen on the
Internet at:


NOTE TO EDITORS AND NEWS DIRECTORS: Reporters and local, state and federal
disaster managers are invited to view a remotely piloted aircraft taking
aerial pictures of a “controlled fire” near an airport to simulate a
wildfire. The aircraft will send data via satellites and the Internet to
firefighters and observers on the ground. The demonstration will be held at
the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. Flight Test Facility near
Victorville, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 6 starting at 8:30 a.m. PDT.
Registration for the exercise will begin at 7 a.m. PDT. A briefing and a
tour of the aircraft will follow. Media representatives must present valid
press credentials or photo ID to enter the demonstration area. To travel to
the event, go north on Interstate 15 to Highway 138, and then turn right on
Sheep Creek Road. Turn left on El Mirage Road, and turn right on El Mirage
Airport Road after the fire station. Stay to the right after going through
the facility’s gate.

Note to Broadcasters: A video file related to this news release is
scheduled for distribution via satellite on NASA Television on Sept. 5,
2001 at noon, 3:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. and midnight EDT. This video
file may also run on Sept. 6; please check the website listed below, or
telephone 202/358-0713 to confirm a feed on Sept. 6. Because feed times and
the schedule are subject to change, please check the NASA TV video file
line-up on the web at
NASA TV is available on GE-2, transponder 9C at 85 degrees west longitude,
with vertical polarization; frequency is on 3880.0 megahertz, with audio on
6.8 megahertz. For general questions about the video file, call NASA
Headquarters, Washington, DC: Fred Brown at 202/358-0713.


John Bluck

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Phone: 650/604-5026 or 604-9000


Cyndi Wegerbauer

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

San Diego, Calif. 92127-1713

Phone: 858/455-2294


SpaceRef staff editor.