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Emergency UAV Mission to Esperanza Fire

The California Office of Emergency Services contacted NASA Ames Research Center on Friday, October 27 requesting emergency assistance in responding to the rapidly growing Esperanza wildfire. In less than 24 hours from the initial request, NASA assembled and flew an emergency mission to provide aerial imaging support to the incident command team battling the Esperanza fire in Southern California. Airspace clearance for the UAV mission on October 28-29 was requested by the OES and Governor’s office, working closely with the FAA. NASA and UAV contractor General Atomics flew the Altair Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with the Autonomous Modular Sensor (AMS)-WILDFIRE, a NASA Ames-developed 12-channel multispectral scanning instrument, over the 40,000-acre Esperanza fire located west of Palm Springs. The arson-attributed 62-square-mile fire claimed the lives of five firefighters, and destroyed 34 homes and 20 other structures.

Ames’s Intelligent Systems Division provided the mission support software and systems that improved the timeliness of data and situational awareness capabilities to a team distributed across the western USA. This unrehearsed, rapid deployment in the field under severe operating conditions occurred with less than 24-hour notice. The Collaborative Decision Environment (CDE) operated over the full 16-hour flight and connected the widely distributed mission team members. The CDE, a prototype system for enabling distributed planning, situational awareness, and data visualization for UAV science missions, was used in mission planning, and for real-time team coordination, situational awareness, and display of data products telemetered from the UAV via satellite. The Esperanza fire Incident Management team also used the CDE to view and download instrument data for use in mapping out the fire’s perimeter and progress, greatly accelerating the time from data collection to decision making.

Because the flight was put together so quickly and conducted over a weekend, collaborative tools were put to—and passed—a rigorous test: team members were logged in from the Grey Butte, CA flight operations center; NASA Ames in Mountain View, CA; team members’ residences in Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, and Pacifica, CA; Reno, NV; Albuquerque, NM; the USFS Remote Sensing Applications Center in Salt Lake City, UT; and the Esperanza fire Incident Command post in Beaumont, CA.

The mission’s 20 tracks flown over the fire produced 500,000 lines of scanner data, which were used to automatically create 94 terrain-corrected images and 44 fire-perimeter shape files. The resulting images and shapes were displayed in the CDE, along with a wide variety of other data sources used for decision support and mission planning, such as Real-time Automated Weather Stations (RAWS) weather predictions, satellite heat detections, airspace boundaries and restrictions, and aircraft location.

NASA PROGRAM FUNDING: Development of the CDE was originally funded under the Intelligent Mission Management sub-project of the Autonomous Robust Avionics (AuRA) project, under the ARMD Vehicle Systems Program, 2004-2005. Support of the Wildfire Research Applications Partnership (WRAP) Wildfire Mission was provided through ARMD FY06 program transition funding. No further work on the CDE is currently funded.

Contacts: Vince Ambrosia (WRAP Principal Investigator); Francis Enomoto (CDE lead); Chad Frost (Intelligent Systems Division, Collaborative and Assistant Systems Tech. Area)

November, 2006