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Fighting Fire From the Sky 108

exceed writes: "Yahoo! News has an article on an unmanned robotic airplane that is able to circle around wild fires for up to 24 hours, sending data and images back down to earth via satellite. The Altus II, created by NASA, employs cutting edge technology usually seen in military aircraft, giving fire officials a real-time view of fires that can burn over hundreds of thousands of acres. The plane could map dozens of fires and topographical features in a day, never endangering a pilot."
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Fighting Fire From the Sky

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  • Space.com Article (Score:3, Informative)

    by the_ph0x` ( 170740 ) <the_ph0x@hotmail.como> on Tuesday September 04, 2001 @03:47PM (#2252584) Homepage
    Space.com also has an article here [space.com]. Similarly a good read for those of you that can't get enough.

  • Cola (Score:2, Funny)

    by manon ( 112081 )
    That is great. Just as long as the automatic pilot isn't running on M$ Flight Simulator.
  • Satellite (Score:2, Insightful)

    by damiam ( 409504 )
    sending data and images down by satellite

    Why not just use an image satellite in the first place? The picture quality is good enough.

    • Re:Satellite (Score:3, Informative)

      by jeffy124 ( 453342 )
      An image satellite does that and only that, takes a picture. THe system discussed in the article maps the landscape to include trees and possibly even leaves that fall off during autumn, two thigns that have a huge influence on how a wild fire spreads. They're looking to determine how the fires spread to study more effective ways of putting fires out when they happen.
    • Re:Satellite (Score:1, Informative)

      well i assume that satellites cannot be in the places you want them nessecarily at the time you want them. a plane on the other hand can move around anywhere.

    • Re:Satellite (Score:3, Informative)

      by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 )
      Because of a number of reasons.

      1. Satellite is in orbit and will have to be tasked, which wastes fuel and even then it's 90 minutes or more between pass.

      2. Because a good satillite - Like a KH series is over a billion dollars, and a lower quality one like a SPOT or the Russian commercial grade sats are at least a 100 million.

      3. Because a satellite will run out of fuel and be replaced every 3-5 years, even a 100 million is a hell of a lot for NASA or the Forest Service to shell every couple years.

      4. UAVs are easier to move around than something in orbit, cheaper to lose and easier to build and upgrade when a next generation sensor comes out.

    • Satellites have a number of limitations when you need real-time surveillance of an area.

      First of all, most imaging satellites are low-earth orbit, and they can take a while to pass over the area of interest. Secondly, they can't give you a side view of (say) a burning hilltop. Thirdly, they're a *minimum* of several tens of miles above the scene.
      Fourth, they're much more expensive to deploy than a robot plane.

      Come to think of it, I could probably put something like this together with mostly off-the-shelf components for well under a hundred grand.

      What would be *very* cool, is if these things were programmed to fly continuous patrols and phone home if they spotted a heat source.

    • Could this technology be mounted on dirigibles?
      Would they be better for the task?
  • by TechnoVooDooDaddy ( 470187 ) on Tuesday September 04, 2001 @03:50PM (#2252600) Homepage
    hell, strap a fire extinguisher on there and go nuts!

    (ok, so not really, but you get my drift)
  • It's about time... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Pii ( 1955 )
    Military, or military-like, technology developed with public funding ought to be made available more quickly.

    Even if they have to "dumb it down" a bit, so that foreign powers can't use it against us, Drone aircraft have a number of applications, public and private.

    I'm glad to see this, and I'll welcome more of it.

  • Why fight fire? (Score:3, Informative)

    by jedwards ( 135260 ) on Tuesday September 04, 2001 @03:51PM (#2252602) Homepage Journal
    What is the obsession with fighting wildfires?
    They're usually in the middle of nowhere with few if any homes threatened. They're good for the environment - many plant species have evolved to require fire for germination, for example.
    See, for example, this article [sciencedaily.com]
    • Right, but... (Score:3, Informative)

      by cr0sh ( 43134 )
      It has now become a sort of "death spiral".

      You see, long ago (actually, not that long ago), before forest fire fighting was a "big" issue, forest fires occurred in their natural cycles, some big, some small - but most not radically devestating.

      As people moved into the forested areas, along with a lot of hype by who knows who (someone with an axe to grind), people bagan to see these natural fires as "bad" - and something should be done (for the children!!!) - so, the fires got fought, and...


      The cycle was destroyed, leading the the forests gathering more "underbrush", that should have burned off long ago, but now continues to grow, where once it was just low stuff close to the ground...

      When it does catch and burn, these huge conflagerations are "contained" (heh, there's a word - most of the time they burn themselves out after a lot of work has been done to get ahead, risk lives, cool them down with water, etc) - allowing the underbrush to continue to collect, until the next big fire.

      I suppose they could just allow them to burn, but the problem is that they would burn the whole forest, and not just the undergrowth, which would be a bad thing.

      What the USFS does today is controlled burns (which I would imaging sometimes get out of hand, and hence become forest fires - not sure how often, though) to kill off this underbrush, but really this isn't enough, because the areas covered by forest are HUGE, and they can't do controlled burns on all of it...

      There really aren't any good answers to any of this, not without letting nature take its course, and risking an anhilation of an entire forested region (which may be what it takes - who knows?)...
      • Re:Right, but... (Score:2, Interesting)

        by McBeth ( 1724 )
        the USFS has for a long time had a policy of controlled burns, and letting things burn. Unfortunately, every once and a while things go wrong. The big fires in New Mexico last year started as a controlled burn. The Yellowstone fires started as a let them burn. When something like that happens, the USFS get ripped apart. The previous US president pushed down all sorts of orders greatly reducing their ability to do controlled burns, and mandating their fighting the small to medium fires. Which is part of why we have had these years where they have had firefighter shortages lately.
    • Most of the time, forest fires are not conatined unless they threaten structures. If one will remember a few years back, the Yellowstone Fire was allowed to burn, until it reached some of the parks facilities, at which point it was contained, but you are right. If a fire is in an uninhabited area, it should be allowed to burn normally.
    • In case you haven't noticed, there are more people living in forested areas today. Last week the town of Weaverville in Northern California had to be evacuated because a wild fire burned right into town. Now the town of Haystack is being threatened. Should we let whole towns burn down because it's good for the flowers?
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Same as people who choose to live next to volcanos
        and on fault lines. Tough luck - nature is stronger than you.
  • Will this render the fire fighting dirtbike [imdb.com] obsolete?

  • they say they look at fire, but they look at you!
  • I am cool with this as long as it rmains in the hands of government agencies, but not if these robitic planes are used for corporate surveillance, investigations of straying spouses, etc. etc.

    The more this tech gets into use, and now the unmanned plane is going towards civilian applications, the more we need to irease privacy education in our culture.

    Let's discuss these issues now and pass appropriate legislation. I don't want to spend all day craning my head into the sky, or watching corporations engage in surveillance arms races.

    • I don't know if I would want for this sort of thing to be in any surveillance-needing part of the government. I mean, NASA's okay, and so is the USFS, but... I don't know...

      If you strapped an IR sensor, a night-vision sensor, and god-knows-what kinds of sensors onto the thing, you could have quite a machine. And with the fact that the government likes to have these things "just in case", I think the temptation for them to use them just for the hell of it is pretty great. I'd be afraid if these things got extremely widespread...

      Or maybe I've just reread Orwell too often. ::shrugs:: Snoogans.
  • by Telek ( 410366 ) on Tuesday September 04, 2001 @03:57PM (#2252632) Homepage
    Here's another [space.com] example of how NASA tech coming "down to earth", as well as an earlier article [space.com] about how NASA was helping fight fires (using satellites)
  • "Fight Fire with Arthur!" - The Tick, episode 1 of the live action series

    Hmm... Arthur flies too...
  • We need that much technology to fight fires.What will be next, trees with automatic defense systems.(Uses AOL CD's to shield from flames)
  • There is probably a natural balance with the amount of combustible material in an area and the amount of moisture in that area. Once a thicket gets too dry, it burns for one reason or another. I find it interesting that the more we fight small to medium sized forest fires, the larger and more destructive the eventual large one is. It's all a balance, and we're helping destroy it one squirt of water at a time. The more we fight nature, the harder it fights back.

    Cool technology, though.
    • This craft isn't even used to actually _fight_ the fire, it is only used to map out the area and send other data down to the fire fighters themselves. And usually, we let forest fires burn until they threaten an area that has some sort of population, then we take certain measures to protect that area.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      That's why they do controlled burns these days.

      But when a large fire breaks out and threatens to destroy a nearby town, are you suggesting that we all just shrug and say "it's nature's way" instead of trying to stop it?

    • Not too long ago, a major fire demonstrated this point painfully well. As I recall, the fire was set when trying to restore this balance. Preventing natural forest fires can make the inevitable fires much worse, and it's hard to undo the damage prevention causes. However, it is still beneficial to keep fires away from populated areas, which is what this would be useful for.
  • This doesn't really make a lot of sense, what danger is there to the pilot that is flying over a forest fire? It's not like they're flying right in the flames. Is it something to do with the heat that is emitted?

    The article also mentions "floods, earthquakes and pollution events", pollution would make sense since there would be danger, but the others don't. But of course I'm not sure what the value of taking pictures of "pollution events" is either.

    • I think staying air born for 24hours straight is problematic for pilots that like to sleep.
    • A derailed, burning railroad tanker full of toxic waste is a pollution event, and I can imagine that pictures could be a useful aid to assessing the situation. As far as it relates to firefighting:

      • How high do you have to fly above a large fire before turbulent updrafts, carbon {mon,di}oxide, and embers are a risk?
      • If your engine quits, how far can you glide to safety?

      I don't have the answers to any of those questions, but I think you can see that the issue isn't quite so straightforward.

  • they have had these things for a while now, caught the article on the discovery channel or TLC a year or so ago - bah one or the other, I'll see if I can dig up the orignal article and post a follow up.
  • It makes a lot of sense, actually. With the perception of "no real enemies to fight" leading to reductions in military spending, the companies that used to develop for the military will be developing for other government agencies and corporations. I have no problem with that, as long as potentially dangerous tech stays domestic. For things like firefighting, I'm all for it.

    And I also like the idea of NASA producing stuff like this. It gives the agency some visibility, and opens the door for increased funding.

    Still, as neat as this is, I would like to see other hardware adapted for firefighting. How about a firefighting cruise missile? Just load it up with fire retardant chemicals and smash it into strategic locations. You'd have no trouble with funding... We Americans LOVE missiles!

  • Predator [af.mil] has the same strange looking tail. Anyone know why?
    • My guess is that it is a cheap form of stealth, to reflect radar pulses up instead of down.
    • With a normal V-tail, when rudder input is used, the required control deflection produces the correct yaw moment, but an *opposite* rolling moment (adverse roll), which fights the aileron (roll) input required to initiate the turn.
      An inverted Vee (sometimes known as a lambda or 'A' tail), produces a rolling moment in the same direction as the yaw, helping roll the aircraft into the turn.

      This seems to be quite popular in UAVs, eg. Aerosonde [aerosonde.com]
      and a few others (whose names escape me right now....)

  • ...when I read the title was "oh, another 'Armageddon-Deep-Impact-could-really-happen' story". I thought it was [fighting (fire from the sky)] instead of [(finghting fire) from the sky].
  • by rvr ( 15565 )
    If we hook up these guys with the guys from boeing (here [slashdot.org])[slashdot.org] we could fight fires at supersonic speed! I might patent this before Bill Gates does.
  • why dont they (Score:2, Insightful)

    by 1Oman ( 308666 )
    Why dont they program it to fly around scoop up water and drop it on the fire. Unlike human pilots they don't need to see at night.

    Get about 10 of them flying 24 hours a day, guided by sattelite and we would need a lot less fire fighters.

    Hey you could even have a robotic refueling plane and the fire fighting drones would never have to land.

    • Re:why dont they (Score:3, Informative)

      by papa248 ( 85646 )

      Because it wouldn't work. I'm a Fire Fighter, and I'll tell you right now that no matter how much water you dump from a chopper, you're never, ever going to get everything out that's on the ground. You just can't dump water as accurately as say, a bomb. Now a water bomb would be interesting. But with hot spots and live fire down there, you need the smoke eaters to be chopping logs down, setting up fire blocks, and controlled burns. No amount of water dropping will slow a fire that is being backed by Santa Anna winds.
    • Why dont they program it to fly around scoop up water and drop it on the fire

      Well, they'd probably end up scooping up the robotic SCUBA divers.... :)

  • This sounds like a larger version of the aerial robots developed for Georgia Tech's International Aerial Robotics Competition [gatech.edu]. Although the amateur designed robots don't have the range of the NASA version, the winning designs can perform all of the tasks that the expensive counterpart can. And I'm sure for a fraction of the price.

  • Altus II (Score:3, Informative)

    by BobandMax ( 95054 ) on Tuesday September 04, 2001 @04:35PM (#2252737)
    The Altus II was not developed by NASA, but by the ASI division of my employer, General Atomics. NASA's role was providing criteria to modify the existing Altus I.

    Here [gat.com] is a link to the GA/ASI site.
  • if they ever got in trouble for performing 'test flights' over nude beaches?
  • Next time we need to chase a white Ford Bronco, I'll bet this is the thing used by all the news stations...
  • Make a vehicle for spying on Americans and pass it off as a fire fighting device... how clever
  • They've just reinvented the DC1 and a trained pilot... The DoA has been orbiting planes around wildfires for about 30 years and having the pilot report back to NIFC via radio. A billion dollars to replace a skilled pilot and plane: just when you thought that the U$ couldn't do anything more stupid...
  • Things like this make me realize that periodically our massive defense budget does yield something good, the the internet... cool robotic planes...
  • I live in Utah in a place were we're basically in a basin surrounded by mountains. We have fires all summer every year. Sometimes, if they're big enough they fill the whole valley up with smoke. It's pretty hard on the lungs. Some more fire control around here would be good. Our firefighters are burned out. But having some controlled burns would be good as well. That takes man power. On the flipside, in winter, all the exhaust from the cars fill up the place.
  • This company [firehogs.com] wants to convert A-10s into fire bombers. Makes sense to me since they have a large payload capacity, excellent low level maneuverability and can fly at relatively slow speeds.
  • by labil ( 410837 )
    One of my collage professors is currently working on a project named WITAS [ida.liu.se], an autonomous flying vehicle.

    They're currently focusing on traffic supervision (The thing can search the roads for a specific car and follow it around and some other cool stuff) but supposedly theyr're also looking into other applications (such as fire monitoring and some other things)

    Apparently, from what I understood from his lectures and from talking to him, they've been talking to, among other cities, Los Angeles, about using the helicopter for monitoring traffic gridlocks and things like that.

    The human operator is able to communicate with the helicopter by talking to it, and the helicopter replies! It's really neat, check out the webpage [ida.liu.se] for more info. They still have about 3-4 years to go on the project.
  • ...the same type of drone that was shot down over Iraq (last week)? Don't know if it's the same size, but it certainly has the same form. So when the article says it has "cutting edge technology usually seen in military aircraft" wouldn't that be because it's essentially the same plane (sans whatever super-duper top-secret military stuff the mfg. wasn't allowed to include)?
  • "The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line September 4th. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug."
  • Here on the U.S. East Coast we're hearing about coast guard helicopters (the big ones) hovering over the beaches watching for sharks. (In response to a cluster of shark attacks) Now, call me crazy, but that's an awful lot of fuel to use just sitting there. Why not use these planes to monitor that too? Shouldn't be much difference, just a live camera feed to a ground station. An unmanned fleet of these would use a heck of a lot less fuel and manpower than hovering those huge helicopters.
  • This story was seen on the national news LAST WEEK. But seeing how people on here rarely leave their computer screens I should have seen it coming.

    However, someone else suggested dropping a "water bomb" on the fires. Does anyone remember the movie "Outbreak" (or a made-for-tv-equivilent)? I'm not sure if its the right movie, but to stop the spread of the virus the military was going to drop a bomb that would suck out/remove the oxygen from the air. Would that extinguish the fires? Is the technology availible? Or am I just a retard?

  • At one point, the article says:

    The plane is a variant of the Predator unmanned surveillance aircraft manufactured by General Atomics and used by the U.S. Air Force.

    The Predator is unpiloted. Completely, I believe. It flies, lands, and takes off all by itself. I believe it's similar to the Global Hawk, a surveillance plane that can fly an entire recon mission just from one person making two mouse clicks.

    But they also say:

    Wegener said the Altus II, which is controlled by pilots on the ground, still needed to clear a few hurdles

    My own emphasis. Can anyone clarify this? They are calling it a robot plane (which to me suggests an unpiloted plane), but then they say it's remotely piloted (a rather different thing, I thought). My guess as to what it means is that either: a) they're going to make it unpiloted, but haven't yet, or b) It's 'sort of' piloted - it doesn't fly the whole mission by itself, but you have someone giving a good general idea of what to do most of the time.

    Either way, a valuable project. It's through stuff like this that Artificial Intelligence, one of the most hyped up fields of research that ever existed, can have useful, visible products.

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