When lightning struck a patch of the Great Dismal Swamp on the border of North Carolina and Virginia in 2011, it sparked a fire that would rage three months long and claim more than 6,000 acres of protected wildlife territory. Michael Logan, the head of NASA Langley’s unmanned aerial vehicle lab, lived nearby. At times, the smoke that choked his neighborhood was so thick he couldn’t see two blocks in front of him.
But the late summer wildfire also made him think. NASA satellites only picked up on the fire four days after it started, after the strike ignited a tract of dead leaves and grass from a previous fire and whipped the flames into a frenzy. What if NASA could design low-flying drones to pick up signals of wildfire before the satellites had a chance?
Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration approved Logan’s project: a trial with UAVs to continuously monitor the Great Dismal Swamp for new flames. It’s a unique project in that it’s one of the few in which drones will be monitoring a wildlife refuge day or night. Earlier this year, the National Park Service announced that it would be banning drones from national parkland.
Logan’s using two UAV’s, the bigger one of which is equipped with an infrared camera to pick up heat and another regular video feed for spotting smoke. The drones can fly lower and slower than manned aircraft, but Logan’s team has yet to see whether it will be better at catching early fires.
“I’m curious how different it’s going to be spotting a fire from riding in a manned aircraft versus watching the video from the ground station,” Logan says. Right now, he’s also working on a way to develop a system of sensors that might be sharper than human eyes on a screen.
Drone surveillance of wildfires couldn’t come at a more critical time. With drought threatening much of the west, longer wildfire seasons because of climate change, and an ongoing wildfire-fighting budget deficit, NASA and conservationists are hunting for new tools to mitigate the damage. Logan notes that the drones could one day be used to even predict some of these changes by tracking man-made deforestation.
“It’s good that folks are realizing that this type of technology isn’t all about lobbing missiles at people,” Logan says. “I’m heartened that there’s a lot of community support.”