Unmanned “Unplugged”

Lance Brady, Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of millions of acres of public land in the U.S. One of its most visible operations is preparing for, monitoring and mitigating wildfires. Working with the U.S. Geological Survey, the BLM has been an early adopter of UAS technology, using it to help improve its wildfire detection and monitoring capabilities. Lance Brady is the UAS Program lead at the BLM National Operations Center in Denver Colorado. He provides leadership in the BLM National Fire Program in geospatial applications and technology development. Lance has 15 years’ experience in Aviation, Photogrammetry and Geographic Information Systems and holds a private pilot FAA certificate.

You recently worked on monitoring wild fires in New Mexico. Can you tell us how unmanned systems can help in these situations?

There is an interagency group within the National Fire Program called the Tactical Fire Remote Sensing Advisory Committee (TFRSAC).This is a multiagency effort between the Forest Service, NASA, Department of Interior and CALFire that is engaged in new research on how to detect and monitor wildfires using remote sensing techniques. Going back to the early 2000s, this NASA research project was investigating the use of unmanned aircraft on wildfires.

There have been several demonstration flights with unmanned aircraft including the NASA Ikhana. During the 2008 wildfire season, the western states’ fire mission was flown with the Ikhana and AMS sensor, which was used for fire detection and mapping.

In the summer of 2011, several incidents in Southern Arizona were imaged with the Department of Homeland Security Predator operations. These fires occurred on National Park Service, US Forest Service and BLM lands adjacent to the Fort Huachuca Military Reservation. The Predator systems conducted tactical infrared mapping and also communication relays. The missions were fairly successful.

I think the technology already exists to do a whole host of things, from initial fire detections to post fire-monitoring with small unmanned aircraft, up to bigger systems that can deliver either cargo or retardant. This technology exists.

However there’s a big bridge to gap from the technology side to the actual implementation. In wildfires, there’s a lot going on, and when we have an active emergency incident that’s happening, we have an entire air force that goes along, from retardant aircraft to helicopters to fixed-wing aircraft. With all the moving parts, we are going to have to wait to see how we can slowly integrate unmanned aircraft into the program. It’s not something that can happen overnight.

You mentioned using UAS for pre-monitoring. Are there any benefits to using unmanned systems in the off-season to prepare for fires?

 A lot of the work that we’re doing is more on the vegetation monitoring side, and the health of our range lands and uplands. Some of the vegetation indicators could be drought related, or could be climate change related, but really it’s focusing on the trends in vegetation. To pick out an area to fly a small unmanned aircraft specifically to look at pre-fire conditions would be very difficult to do. However, we have an overall monitoring program where we’re not only integrating small unmanned aircraft, but we’re also integrating traditional manned aerial photography flight and using satellite imagery. In the BLM, we have a program called the AIM, or the Assessment Inventory and Monitoring program, this program uses appropriate platform imagery at multiple scales to monitor vegetation for rangeland health using high resolution imagery to train moderate resolution imagery which in turn trains course resolution satellite imagery. That’s where we are focusing our efforts with the unmanned systems when it comes to vegetation monitoring.

What other projects has the Bureau of Land Management performed using unmanned systems?

We have several missions that we’ve flown, one looking at the spread and infestation of invasive weeds in southern Idaho. This was the first mission flown in the national airspace. Since we were using just the stock video cameras onboard the Raven  aircraft, it was difficult to detect invasive plants with the RQ 11 Raven. 

I think the big success in that project was that we integrated the unmanned aircraft system into a manned aircraft program. This mission was conducted during fire season, and a lot was going on around us. And we stayed in close coordination with the fire dispatch centers. We work closely with our bureau’s aviation program to make sure our missions are successful, are flown safely and don’t impact any other manned agency aircraft missions in the area.

 Some other missions that we’ve flown were in support of watershed monitoring projects in southern Arizona. We looked at numerous natural resource issues from erosion to stability of dam structures, vegetation monitoring, vegetation rehab plot and a fence line survey. We want to demonstrate that we could go to a mission site and be able to collect data and use the data for multiple purposes.  Each day we flew a different project within the FAA-approved COA. To this point we’ve done these missions at a very inexpensively for Bureau and have gotten a lot of valuable data. From just the Arizona mission we acquired more than 29,000 still frames of imagery to process and probably another hour or so of high definition video.

What other agencies have you worked with on projects using unmanned systems and do you have any similar coordinated projects planned for the near future?

 We work closely with the U.S. Geological Survey, UAS Project Office located here in Denver. We do most of our project coordination with them and have a shared calendar of missions. We’ve supported many USGS missions, and they’ve supported BLM missions as well. We’re trying to do this to reduce costs to the federal government. On each mission we fly, we learn from each other’s experiences and expertise. So far it’s been a win-win. The UAS project office supports many projects from the Office of Surface Mining to the National Park Service to the Bureau of Reclamation and others including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I’ve been involved in many of the flight operations on those projects as well, from West Virginia to Washington State. It’s a good organization and we work together very well.

The data management continues to be a challenge and we have learned from each other the best ways to use the imagery for surface modeling, vegetation mapping, and wildlife monitoring.

How have unmanned systems improved your research or allowed you to complete tasks that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to do?

What we’re really focusing on in the BLM is the small unmanned systems. We’re not trying to do away with our manned aircraft program, we’re trying to supplement it. There are certain missions we operate where we would never put a manned aircraft or pilot at risk, especially low altitude, high-risk environments. In the past we have put different camera systems on light sport aircrafts, or ultralights. We’ve also put them on helicopters and have the pilots fly 50 to 100 feet off the ground in order to obtain the image quality that we need. There came a point at which we realized that there’s a safety issue, so we backed away from utilizing light sport aircraft and helicopters from doing the high-risk, low-altitude, high-resolution imagery missions. And that’s where the UAS has fit so far. We have been able to acquire some very high resolution data on things such as vegetation trends, dinosaur track mapping and small volumetric projects. Our manned aviation program has a specific niche for which it is very well suited. We’re taking unmanned aircraft beyond that to use them in a way that we otherwise wouldn’t use a manned aircraft.

What potential uses do you see for unmanned systems in the future as this technology continues to improve and what are some of the improvements you’ve seen in the technology in the time you’ve been working with them?

You can just look in the paper every day and see what unmanned systems have been doing. I just saw an article today about a rotor craft that the military is using to do cargo flights. It’s a dual-use aircraft so it can be flown by a pilot or it can be flown remotely with an automated system.

Those are the type of things that intrigue me, seeing the capability that the military has right now. Can those same types of systems be used in a fire environment? We do para-cargo, we conduct cargo sling loads, and we use helicopters. The majority of fires have some air asset on them. Can we start using some of those types of assets on wildfires? I think we can. It’s going to take a long time to get past the misconceptions about the systems.

And there’s going to have to be some strong safety cases either way—whether we use manned or unmanned and how we integrate them. It’s going to take some time to do, but you can just look at the news every day and see how technology is improving and changing.

It’s pretty neat where we are going. We’re just at the beginning of this. We’re at the test and evaluation phase of integrating UAS into the bureau’s business practices. We’ve acquired military Ravens and military T-Hawks for the majority of our work. They were designed for an entirely different mission than we’re using them. We’re trying to use them for natural resource application and to look at vegetation and wildlife issues.  It has been difficult in that these aircraft were built for a specific mission in the armed forces and the imagery sensors were designed for that mission. We have been able to make simple modifications, and we’ve seen a huge leap forward in this past year with what the technology can do. So things are moving fast. We’re trying to keep up.

We have a lot of requests in the BLM for the use of unmanned systems and we only have so much capacity at this time. We’re hoping in the next several years we can look more at our business needs and business requirements and procure aircraft that meet those needs and are modular in design. We’re interested in having modular payloads that can do multiple things for multiple programs with COTS equipment.

When you’re monitoring vegetation and wildlife, what can unmanned systems tell you? And what’s important to pay attention to?

We can put the same imaging packages on a manned aircraft as well. There’s just an increased risk in safety and there’s also an increased cost depending on the project site. On some of our small project sites, such as calculating volumes of material in a gravel pit, it can be very expensive to dispatch a manned aircraft with a camera on board to acquire that imagery.

Instead, for a couple hundred dollars in time, we can go out to a project site, launch an unmanned system and acquire that mapping grade photogrammetric data. In certain instances, we can acquire survey-quality photogrammetric data and come back to the office and process the data to calculate volumes of material at the project. And we can do it very inexpensively. And there are some safety issues that we’ve mitigated by using unmanned systems.

We’re really focused on the high precision photogrammetric mapping capability. The entire wildlife division has its specific needs for infrared heat detection to determine where animals are present and absent. And we can also use the capability to map vegetation.

Is there anything else that the Bureau of Land Management is doing with unmanned systems that’s interesting that others may not have heard about?

The biggest message is about the data, what we do with the data and how we process it. The aircraft that we use is sort of independent of that, however the use of unmanned aircraft allows us to collect very high resolution imagery we were unable to acquire safely before. We are now able to fly 50 to 200 feet above ground level to acquire the imagery.

Recently, we joined the U.S. Geological Survey, along with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department in Grand Junction, Colorado to fly over a landslide site. They wanted to quantify volumes of materials that had slid and over time be able to monitor to see if there’s any movement or shifting in the land surface at the landslide. We’re working cooperatively with multiple agencies on this effort and are pretty excited about that aspect of it.

The actual landslide itself may be uncommon, but the techniques that we’re using are very common. We can use the same techniques for volumes of material at a gravel pit to volumes of materials on an engineering design project. Down the road we can use the same techniques that we’re deploying here for archeological work. One of our projects that we are excited to implement this year or next year is the high resolution photogrammetric mapping of dinosaur tracks. The BLM has a photogrammetric mapping division that has been an industry leader in close range photogrammetry and those techniques are what we’re employing in the unmanned aircraft program.

Another big part of the BLM program is our paleontological and cultural program, and we’re planning to have a lot of support missions in that program as well. It’s a really neat application and tool. If something were to happen with some of the cultural sites, like a rock art site or a cliff dwelling, at least we can go back to the 3D models that we have generated to preserve them as they were at that point in time. The BLM photogrammetric staff has completed project sites all over the world.