BOISE — A first-of-its-kind mission just wrapped up in Idaho, drones being used to help firefighters get a handle on the spreading flames.
For five days, an unmanned aircraft flew over the Tepee Springs Fire north of McCall.
The fire was started by lightning back on August 12th and is now about 95 percent contained. It burned a total of nearly 96,000 acres and forced evacuations in the Riggins area.
The Department of the Interior, along with several other agencies, decided to use the Tepee Springs Fire as a testing area for new drone technology. The project was the first of its kind in Idaho.
The unmanned aircraft, or drone, was used to take videos, locate hot spots, and even measure the intensity of the flames. That information was then immediately sent back to the command center, and the agencies involved say it was a huge success.
From 8,000 feet up in the mountains north of McCall, the Textron drone launched above the Tepee Springs Fire. The 75-pound, 10-foot unmanned aircraft was controlled from the ground and could fly a distance of 60 miles. It instantly sent back data and images for up to 18 hours before returning back to the launch site.
“Using unmanned aircraft for information gathering and mapping services will only support the firefighters on the ground so they have the most up-to-date information they need in order to do their jobs,” said Brad Koeckeritz with the Department of the Interior.
Koeckeritz has been working on this project for months and finally saw this type of drone in action in Idaho.
“It’s an evolution not a revolution, we’re going to see a consistent increase in the use of this technology,” said Koeckeritz.
Koeckeritz says they learned a lot from the five-day demonstration at the Tepee Springs Fire, and from a similar mission in Washington in August. He says they were able to get data on video terminals and hand held devices mapping exactly where the fire was moving along with the intensity and temperatures of the flames, despite challenging conditions.
David Phillips is the vice president of Small and Medium Endurance Unmanned Aircraft Systems with Textron, the company that supplied the aircraft.
“We flew a short wave infrared as well that enabled us to look through haze, through smoke, through fog, through clouds to be able to see right through it to the fire images and heat images,” said Phillips.
Phillips says drones similar to the one used in Idaho had been used by the Department of Defense. Dennis Racine, Senior Director of Civil and Commercial Products with Textron, says they’re able to add technology including infrared cameras to gather specific data in order to keep those fighting the flames safer.
“Now instead of sending the group of so-called ground pounders up the hill to understand what’s going on and see what’s going on, they were able to get a really good view before they went up of what they were against, what they were looking for,” said Racine.
Textron says this was simply a test mission. But, both the Department of the Interior and the company involved said they learned a lot about ways to improve these projects and what worked well.
They say the goal is to increase the use of unmanned aircrafts to aid in fire suppression efforts across the country, including here in Idaho. No word yet on how much these types of missions could cost.