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FAA gives green light to drones monitoring fires

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) clearance to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) manufactured by Insitu in the monitoring of wildfires that pose an urgent threat, the DNR announced July 15.

The Washington State Legislature authorized DNR to employ UAVs through a proviso in the 2014 state supplemental operating budget in enacted in April. The proviso reads, “Within the amounts appropriated in this section, the department may purchase an extraordinary sensing device for the express purpose of firefighting and fire prevention.”

Federal aviation officials issued “an emergency certificate of waiver or authorization” to the DNR to enable it to use Insitu’s ScanEagle UAV system for nighttime monitoring of wildfires. It is the first time in U.S. history that a UAV, also known as a drone, has been permitted to do such work.

Jill Vacek, Insitu’s communications manager, told The Enterprise last week that Insitu UAVs are not flying yet, but the company remains hopeful it will get a call during this fire season.

“Insitu has the FAA’s operational approval to assist with wildfire monitoring in the state of Washington and is ready to accommodate requrests for assistance from the Washington Department of Natural Resources,” Vacek said in a prepared statement. “At this time, there has not been a request for assistance. When more information becomes available, I will let you know.”

Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark hailed the FAA’s decision on July 15 and pointed out a couple of benefits use of UAVs will offer fire managers tracking a fire’s behavior and planning attacks.

“Use of a UAV can help get real-time information to firefighters on the ground,” Goldmark said in a DNR news release. “Just over the last few days we’ve seen more than a hundred fire starts in Washington. Additional information can provide a safer operating environment for firefighters.”

According to DNR, the agency regularly uses airplanes and helicopters to monitor and control wildfires, though wind and smoke can lead to the grounding of these aircraft. UAVs, for their part, can fly in conditions manned aircraft can’t, and can relay video information to fire managers to help fire suppression efforts.

DNR officials say any decision to use a UAV “will be made in real time and depend on emergency conditions around a particular wildfire.”

“If a UAV is warranted, the agency will use a ScanEagle, which is built by Insitu,” said DNR Communications Manager Janet Pearce.

According to product information on Insitu’s website, the gasoline-powered ScanEagle is just over 5 feet long, has a wingspan of 10.2 feet, weighs about 40 pounds empty (about 49 pounds at takeoff), and comes equipped with an array of sensors and cameras. The ScanEagle, moreover, can stay aloft for 24-plus hours, and has a cruising speed of 50-60 knots, with a flight ceiling of 19,500 feet.

In recent weeks, DNR has banned outdoor burning on all DNR-protected lands, while Klickitat and Skamania counties have instituted outdoor burning bans in their unincorporated areas. Weather conditions, however, point toward the coming of a difficult fire season. The fire rating for Klickitat County is now extreme, the highest rating on DNR’s fire rating scale.

“At a time when resources are stretched, using a UAV can save money and help us accomplish our mission,” Goldmark said. “I appreciate the leadership of the Legislature…in helping us apply this technology to fighting fires, protecting communities, and preserving habitat.”

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