This weekend, firefighters battling the 48,000 acre wildfire just southeast of Silicon Valley, raging since Labor Day, had help from an experimental unmanned aircraft, Ikhana. This was the third time since mid-August that Ikhana took to the skies to help firefighters in California and nearby states.
Ikhana, a remotely piloted aircraft manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems as part of the Predator B series, carries a scanning system built by NASA''s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. The system records images in multiple wavelengths, from visible light through the infrared and thermal parts of the spectrum. A computer on the plane does the image processing and runs a fire detection algorithm, aligning the data to terrain maps, and then sends final images via a communications satellite to a server at NASA Ames, which makes them accessible to firefighters via the web. Firefighters at command centers can overlay these images on Google Earth for easy visualization or insert them into other mapping software [photo].
Ikhana took off Friday evening at 6:11 pm and flew for 20 hours, visiting the so-called ''Lick Fire'' twice and covering 10 other fires, all the way up the west coast to the Canadian border. (The Lick Fire got its name from the nearby Lick Observatory)
''Everything went perfectly!'' Vince Ambrosia, NASA''s principal investigator on the Ikhana project told me this morning.
He expects the sensing system used on Ikhana to begin migrating into the U.S. Forest Service''s firefighting arsenal within a year, though, he says, it will initially be used on piloted planes. It will likely be a decade before the forest service begins to rely on large unmanned vehicles, although smaller unmanned aircraft might come within the next year or two.
But NASA''s demonstration flights, which provide welcome information to firefighters, will continue this fire season.
And today, firefighters expect to finally contain the Lick Fire.