Mountain View Voice

News - May 3, 2013

NASA imaging tech makes for better wildfire battles

by Daniel DeBolt

Thanks to NASA Ames Research Center, the U.S. Forest service will have a new weapon to battle wildfires with this summer.

It's an airplane-mounted sensor that can measure heat on the ground with precision, producing a heat map showing active fires, hot spots and areas that are smoldering. Called an "Autonomous Modular Sensor," or "AMS" for short, it was recently mounted on a Cessna Citation airplane owned by the U.S. Forest Service, and will be available to firefighting crews working in this year's wildfire season.

"Missions will be flown the same day people order them up," said Tom Zajkowski, remote sensing specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, as he stood by the plane on Moffett Field's tarmac. The data the sensor produces "can be used in fire behavior models. If you know where a fire is and you have prediction model, it can tell you where it's probably going to go. Then you can order up the resources you need to fight the fire."

"More and more teams are seeing the use of getting data because we are having more fires and fires of greater intensity," Zajkowski said. "With the budgets they way they are, you have to do things wisely, you have to fight fire effectively."

The sensor was under development at NASA Ames between 2006 and 2010, used in a limited number of wildfires while aboard NASA's Ikhana drone and B-200 King-Air airplane.

With the sensor now in the possession of the Forest Service, "we would expect to do a lot more," Zajkowski said, noting that it may be used for up to 400 flight hours this year, compared to the 120 hours a year it was used when NASA research protocols had to be followed.

The AMS has other uses as well, and the Forest Service will be marketing it to companies and other government agencies when not in use for firefighting duties.

"We've already flown missions for the USGS (U.S. Geological Service) over Utah Lake where they are monitoring thermal hot springs," Zajkowski said.

In late April, the plane was set to fly a mission for the U.S. Department of Agriculture over a Northern California vineyard where "heat differentials" will be used to to map out soil moisture and provide data for efforts to minimize the among of water that is used on the crops, Zajkowski said.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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