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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Firefighting with a UAS

By Lee Benson

I was in a ready room in South Vietnam in 1969, when a fellow pilot read aloud an article printed in the Stars and Stripes. The article reported that the United States Congress had just passed a bill providing federal grant funds to law enforcement agencies for the purpose of instructing officers in the fine art of flying helicopters. To say that my fellow pilots and I were not overly thrilled with the idea would be generous.

In March of this year, I attended an Aerial Firefighting Conference conducted by Tangent Link in Vancouver, B.C. I noticed that several speakers were presenting papers on the use of UAS (unmanned aerial systems). UAS is the new speak for what we used to call a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), the emphasis now placed on the system carried, rather than the vehicle itself. Makes a certain amount of sense when you see what these systems can do. The papers were presented by UAS managers from NASA, the U. S. Forest Service and academia. These systems are capable of flying in visibility conditions that include night time and smoke densities that would stop normal VFR, daytime operations.

The UAS employed in this effort range from aircraft with a wingspan of a several feet and a payload weight of 40 lbs up to a Predator, which carries a 700-lb payload to 40,000 feet. The sensors employed by the UAS certainly start with FLIR (forward-looking infrared) and visual cameras, but other sensors such as LADAR (laser detection and ranging) radar are in the mix. The LADAR can provide obstacle data such as wires and towers and three-dimensional digital maps. LADAR in combination with available sensors can also differentiate between live, dead and dormant fuels, providing a variety of tools for fire managers. All of this reminded me of the sense of betrayal that my fellow pilots and I felt when we heard about the actions of Congress those many years ago.

If there is a market in the future for UAS operations, and I think there will be, then I hope the men and women that have served our country as UAV/UAS pilots, drivers, operators (someone needs to clue me in on that one) under difficult circumstances are not forgotten by some politician trying to score points with who knows who.

Enough of the preamble, my real interest was piqued when the first PowerPoint bullet shown by the first presenter, read “never underestimate how difficult the FAA can make something.” My somewhat informed, but certainly not knowledgeable, response to the issue of UAS use on fires has been, “when you have the FAA on board with reasonable airspace rules and practices, we’ll talk.”

The main issues seem to center around airspace and avoidance of other aircraft. The airspace issue starts with the amount of time that it takes the FAA to issue a COA (Certificate of Authorization). Currently assuming that a pre-application covering airworthiness, etc., of the aircraft is on file and the request is from a governmental agency, the time for a COA to be approved is two weeks plus. If you haven’t got a fire out in two weeks, well you get the rest of that thought.

The next problem is the location of the airspace. A rule change in 2010 required all flights of UAS to be within 50 miles of an MOA (military operation area). The issue of avoidance is interesting. The FAA originally set rules that stated active radar on the UAS to inform the UAS pilot of possible conflicts with traffic would be sufficient. That ruling has been changed. Radar is no longer an acceptable means of traffic avoidance. The list goes on.

All the issues above are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. But who will champion UAS operations? Ardyth Williams is air traffic manager of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Program Office. Williams’ name was mentioned by several people in the UAS community as someone who is trying hard to make UAS operations work, but is she enough?

In my conversations with several people, a common thought has prevailed. Are the UAV issues of today in the same position as NVG (night vision goggle) issues in 1998? In 1998, NVG operations were being promoted by some very farsighted people in the helicopter industry as a valuable tool for the safety of night operations. Notice I said tool, not “the answer.”

Unfortunately, there were folks inside the FAA that opposed NVG use, and in my view let their bias get in the way of good policy making. Despite this, and because public operators were able to move forward with NVG operations without the concurrence of the FAA, the success of these operations forced the FAA to embrace NVG operations for Part 135 operators. Without the public operators being able to integrate NVG into their operations, would this tool have been available to the rest of the industry?

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