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Eye In Sky To Spy On Wildfires Awaits Green Light From Feds

Two Air National Guard reconnaissance planes were called in Wednesday by the National Interagency Fire Center to help detect and map wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. The twin engine, turboprop RC-26 aircraft will be temporarily based at Spokane's Fairchild Air Force Base and at Eugene's airport. In the near future, their assignmentmay be carried out by unmanned aircraft. 

Drone makers in the Columbia River Gorge and digital mapping companies from Bend and Hood River, Oregon, are among those waiting to hear if they're hired to be an eye in the sky to monitor big wildfires.

At the beginning of June, the U.S. Department of the Interior solicited bids for drones and operators to support wildfire fighting, search and rescue and other remote sensing missions. 

?Digital mapping startup FireWhat, which is based in Bend and Dunsmuir, California, and Boeing's unmanned aircraft subsidiary Insitu teamed up on an offer using the ScanEagle surveillance drone.

Insitu senior manager of commercial aviation Charlton Evans said the eye in the sky could be a game-changer for fighting wildfires.

"We can not only do historical analysis on the fire, but also very frequent real time analysis on the fire, which is something that the fire industry does not get today,” Evans said. “And ultimately do predictive analysis on the fire so incident commanders can plan resources in advance of where they're going to need to be."

Department of the Interior acquisitions branch chief Joshua Carter in Boise said the agency is evaluating multiple offers. He projected a "mid-September timeframe" for making a bid award.

The federal bid solicitation envisions a drone that would loiter high over a wildfire for long durations—day and night—beaming down live video and thermal imaging.

FireWhat CEO Sam Lanier said the aerial data could be used in many ways including hot spot detection, real time targeting for water and retardant drops, future fire modeling based on land cover analysis and quick identification of property ownership in the path of a fast-moving fire. 

?"Currently, fire incident commanders must work with fire line information that often is 12-to-24 hours old - while a fire continues to burn," the bid partners wrote in a news release.

Digital mapping and analytics software developer Esri is also part of the FireWhat-Insitu partnership. ?

Credit Overwatch Imaging
Overwatch Imaging
One of the capabilities of an aerial sensor developed by Overwatch Imaging is automatic hot spot detection, as highlighted in this image.

Another Northwest company with a potential stake in the bid competition is Hood River, Oregon-based Overwatch Imaging. Founder Greg Davis said his small company has developed an aerial imaging sensor specific for wildland fire management, which he hoped would be incorporated by a winning drone operator. ?

Newberg, Oregon-based robotic aircraft operator Precision Integrated also acknowledged submitting an offer in response to the federal bid solicitation. It partnered with drone company Aerovel of White Salmon, Washington, which makes the Flexrotor unmanned aerial system, a vertical takeoff and landing reconnaissance drone. 

?The federal bid solicitation portrays the wildfire surveillance drone as a service that would be ordered as needed and billed by the day. The remotely-piloted aircraft would not be government owned. 

?Evans declined for competitive reasons to reveal the operating cost of the ScanEagle proposal, but said it would be "on par with other manned assets" such as a water bomber. That could mean hundreds of dollars per flight hour based on current firefighting air tanker contracts. 

?"We won't be in the way of the fire bombers at all," Evans said. "Our sensors are in their sweet spot around 3,000 to 5,000 feet for these applications." 

?Until now, when drones and wildfires appeared in the same story it was usually about how an unauthorized hobbyist trying to capture a cool picture endangered firefighting aircraft and forced aerial firefighting to stop temporarily. Drones would go from a hindrance to a help in the scenarios the federal government envisions. 

?The BC Wildfire Service has used unmanned aerial vehicles in an expanded role this summer as the Canadian province copes with a staggering fire outbreak. A fire information officer told CKNW Radio that the drones are primarily being used for mapping and hot spot detection and they are getting good reviews. ?

The Interior Department has conducted a few tests of unmanned aircraft technology in recent years, notably using a remotely-piloted, water-dropping helicopter in a trial near Boise, Idaho, and an Insitu ScanEagle over a remote wildfire in Olympic National Park in western Washington. 

?Other federal and state agencies could request the chosen UAV under existing interagency support partnerships. ?

"Ideally, we would like to award several contracts, so if needed, multiple locations may be supported at the same time," DOI wrote in response to a potential vendor's question earlier this summer.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.