UAVs + VSee for NIST Wildland Fire Protection


Last week, a wildfire outbreak shut down some main roads near my home for 2 days. Luckily no one was hurt, and there was little damage to homes, but this isn’t always the case. Award-winning author Maxine Hong Kingston once lost the entire manuscript of her new book to an Oakland wildfire which also burned down her house. In California alone, an average of over one thousand structures per year have been destroyed by wildfires since 2000. Nationwide, fire departments have responded to an estimated average of 356,800 per year from 2004 to 2008. That translates to 976 such fires every day.

With statistics like these, VSee is excited to be a part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) research project to battle these destructive wildfires.  The Wildland Urban Interface Fire Research Project uses small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) more commonly known as “drones” embedded with VSee to help collect real-time data from fires that begin in Wildland Urban Interfaces (WUI) or areas where extensive woods and brush mix with numerous structures and their inhabitants. Since very little is known about how WUI fires start, the project is working towards a better understanding of these wildfires in order to improve the way we prevent and contain these fires.

Mike Hennig is the UAV Pilot at Controls for this NIST project and has used mini drones in various capacities from assisting a National Geographic expedition in search of Ghengis Khan’s tomb to supporting humanitarian disaster responses to partnering with the San Diego State University Visualization Center and local public safety units to fight wildfires. A news report explains the benefits of using drones:

Using the drone instead of firefighting helicopters does not just save money. It also eliminates the risk of having to place a pilot in the air. The drone is lightweight, can fly in high winds, and can take off from virtually any location. It has two cameras; one for streaming video that can be watched in real time online and one that takes high resolution pictures. Typically, it soars 400 to 500 feet above the ground and can go as high as 12,000 feet. The drone can stay in the air for about an hour, running off an electronic motor system.

Source: SDSU Firefighting Drone

For Hennig and his fellow NIST researchers, VSee provides a way for the deployed team to communicate with their counterparts in real-time. This is important for providing field data, enhancing UAV flight plans, collaborating on data collection, and other research activities during field efforts. With VSee, remote team members can instantly share field data and provide feedback on the quality and integrity of the various data sets, even modifying data as needed. Hennig says “We’ve benefited tremendously from VSee.  Having a video communication resource that is simple to install, and even easier to use has allowed our field researchers to focus on their tasks without having to spend a lot of time learning a new tool.”

In the future they plan to do even more with VSee as a means of sharing relevant sensor feeds from the UAV systems and field level sensors. Meanwhile, VSee’s low-bandwidth, real-time video communication over satellite is already making a big difference in the quality of their research collaboration and data collection.

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Photo courtesy: Glenn Batuyong via Flickr

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