A tech firm in Bend has teamed with a Boeing subsidiary to develop an unmanned aircraft system that provides wildland firefighters with real-time fire data.
FireWhat Inc., a geographic information systems, or GIS, company with an office in Bend, and Insitu, a Boeing Co. subsidiary based in Hood River, will test the system later this month at the Warm Springs test range for unmanned aerial vehicles. Representatives of FireWhat and Insitu made the announcement Thursday at the Oregon UAS Summit and Expo at the Riverhouse on the Deschutes convention center in Bend.
The project aims to provide incident commanders on the ground with real-time fire maps overlaid with geographic information that shows what a fire is actually doing and what it’s likely to do. Using overlays, the GIS system provides map locations for power lines, population clusters, schools and other information. It can provide past fire history for a site, as well as weather information such as humidity and temperature, said Sam Lanier, CEO of FireWhat.
“This will change the way fires are fought,” he said.
The two companies have been working together since September 2016, a match made by the U.S. Department of the Interior, said Lanier and Charlton Evans, Insitu commercial aviation products manager. Both companies have separately put their technology to work on real wildland fires. Insitu flew its unmanned ScanEagle, which carries optical and infrared cameras, over the Paradise Fire in Washington in September 2015. FireWhat processed data from manned overflights of the Tepee Fire in Idaho in November 2015.
FireWhat, based in Dunsmuir, California, arrived in Bend when it purchased Geo-Spatial Solutions, an agricultural mapping company in 2015. FireWhat incorporates a GIS system hosted on an ArcGIS platform developed by Esri, a Redlands, California, firm, and uses HP Inc. software and hardware.
The system requires an internet connection to transmit data from the cloud to end users on digital cellular networks, Lanier said. That connection is sometimes a problem, one federal agencies are addressing on their own, he said.
However, FireWhat makes use of satellite systems to ensure its own internet connection, he said. “We’re 100 percent self-contained. We have internet with us at all times,” Lanier said.
Liz Stalford, manger of the Warm Springs test range, one of three in Oregon in the Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Range Complex, said the FireWhat-Insitu trial represents a leap forward for firefighting technology. Stalford said she has flown over wildfires to collect and transmit digital data. But most fire mapping takes place on the ground, with firefighters using hand-held global positioning system devices, unless the incident command has the rare access to appropriate aircraft, she said.
“Most of the mapping is very old by the time it gets back to the 5 o’clock meeting at the incident command post,” where the data is studied and plans made for the following day, she said.
If successful, the ScanEagle would transmit information electronically to a GIS post-processing vehicle or tent at the fire camp. “This would be much more timely data, and you would really know what’s going on,” Stalford said.
If the Nena Springs Fire burning on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation is still active when the test is scheduled, the test may move to Prineville Airport, she said. The fire triggered temporary flight restrictions that could preclude the Insitu flight test if they remain in place, Stalford said.
“We’ll have a backup plan so nothing interrupts us,” she said.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the UAS summit keynote speaker, received a quick briefing of the FireWhat-Insitu test and put the news at the top of his remarks. Wyden had just arrived from a visit to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Redmond, a communications and coordination center for state and federal firefighting agencies. The drive to Bend took Wyden through a smoky haze covering much of Central Oregon, the result of fires burning in every direction.
An advocate for personal privacy, Wyden said the technology behind unmanned aerial systems, or drones, can progress without intruding on personal space. He coupled the emerging technology to fire hazards piling up in Central Oregon forests.
“I walk right in (to the expo) and see a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that’s ideally positioned in order to help us fight fire and do it in a way, in effect, that doesn’t harm privacy,” Wyden said after his speech. “You can have innovative, new industries and it’s kind of how it’s used. We shouldn’t freeze technologies. I think this sector can be a key part of the effort, in terms of fighting fire.”
Lanier, of FireWhat, a former firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he found resistance within the firefighting community among the obstacles to bringing new technology to bear. He recalled, while announcing the Insitu partnership Tuesday, being chided as a hippie with unrealistic dreams because he once brought a science magazine with an article on drones to a fire-scene communications trailer.
“To think you’d be able to fly something like this over a wildfire is just nuts,” he said, referring to comments at the time.
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