Data measurement in aerial firefighting
Can data collection and visualization save lives and property in firefighting? A story from the perspectives of those collecting and using the data
Intterra of Colorado is in the business of aerial firefighting measurement. Founded in 2010, the company is focused on R3 – risk, response and resiliency. That solution includes collecting aircraft data, firefighting location mapping and data management for mitigation, incidents, hazards, recovery and analytics. They specifically focus on data collection for wildfires, according to Robert Edson, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer.
Over the past decade, data management and measurement have piqued the interest of public and private firefighting agencies, aircraft manufacturers and pilots, who rely on data to create budgets and make decisions. More importantly, it saves the lives of both firefighters and communities.
Data collection and visualization through software
Intterra relates to ‘Int’ for intelligence and ‘terra’ for the earth. Still, they could have easily been called ‘aerial firefighting data juggernauts’, considering the influence they now have on data collection. The technology offers cloud-based visualization through a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model for fire agencies in the basic sense. However, Edson said: “Intterra is a central hub and data set, offering a single common operating picture for all things related to active intelligence.”
Data is collected from various sources: aircraft, satellites, drones, firefighters in the field and various sensors. All of this is uploaded to a central location. Using geospatial locations (i.e. highly robust maps), different layers can be viewed to determine fires or smoke, power lines (key for helicopter operators), agriculture, residential communities, structures or any number of obstacles in an area.
“Operators can turn on a data layer like infrastructure or powerlines; locations they can and can’t drop retardant, etc, based on what they need,” Edson confirmed. “It is a decision-support application with information and data they require, when and where they need it.”
Data is collected from various sources: aircraft, satellites, drones, firefighters in the field and various sensors
The company has a big footprint, with contracts from the US federal government, as well as agencies in many states. They offer, “A central hub/resources for a single situational awareness tool. During an event, users can turn certain data on and off based on need; they can look at certain parameters like ‘structures at risk in an area’, or they can turn on, ‘a data layer with wildfire progression models that may show infrastructure or power lines, or something very tactical like where all of the heli-dip sites are in an area’.”
Intterra prides itself on visualization and is ultimately a tool for decision-making.
- Geographic location or size of a wildfire/fire
- Fires under control or fires happening now
- Aircraft intel including video, Fire Integrated Real-time Intelligence System (FIRIS) data, wildfire progression models, perimeters and division breaks
- Preplanning information
- Cameras in the area, if integrated
- Dozens of other data sets supporting incident commanders with active intelligence on where to send people, aircraft, trucks or other resources.
The data available varies by system, state and agency.
The most significant aspect is data shared across ‘jurisdictional boundaries’. Edson concluded: “If you see an incident commander reviewing a map, they are likely looking at an Intterra map. If you are in a different state, you can see other states and their data, then engage with that state/location with appropriate permissions.”
Bode Aviation – pilots collecting data in special missions and ISR
Dave Bickerstaff is a pilot for Bode Aviation, a company contracting with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. Bickerstaff flies a Pilatus PC-12 – a fixed-wing, single-engine turboprop for special mission operations and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in New Mexico, Colorado and Puerto Rico.
Capturing data and reporting hazards is where they specialize. Using cameras, video screens and infrared, and the ability to haul passengers, they can spot and report on concerns. “After a thunderstorm goes through the area in the summer, we can go fly over those areas, and from 20,000ft, they can see a single tree smoldering on infrared. They size up and call it into a nationwide flight dispatch zone,” said Bickerstaff.
Based upon their visualization, various methods and use of Intterra software, they assess risk. Bickerstaff said if it is a low spread potential, they can dispatch a helicopter to dump water on it. When the fire is larger – between 20 and 2,000 acres, they send the data to Intterra to disseminate the information to firefighting crews.
Once the fire is named, they can send interested parties to the ‘Billy Bob Fire’ (in the software) to research location and resources. Fire crews need to have cell coverage and log in to view updates.
Bode Aviation continues to upload and share information via the tool as parties are notified. The staff at Bode tend to be firefighters as aircraft managers, who have training in firefighting, smokejumping and hotshots.
They become trained in flying in the aircraft with the pilot and can communicate data to the incident commander. Bickerstaff summarized: “Data is then transmitted to Intterra, who can display it to all interested parties, who can log in and see what is going on – within multiple levels of geography, infrared, terrain, etc. The amount of land and lives that this technique can save is inestimable – how destructive might the fire have been, if not caught early?”
Division of Fire Prevention & Control – a program manager’s perspective
‘The State of Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA) program is unique to the country. It comprises two Pilatus PC-12 airplanes, outfitted with state-of-the-art infrared (IR) and color sensors operated by Division of Fire Prevention and Control personnel’, according to the Wildland Fire Logistic Branch website.
Bruce Dikken is Program Manager with the state. It started in 2013, intending to provide intelligence to first responders.
As a former firefighter for over 21 years, it was a good fit for him to transition to aircraft management for wildland firefighting. He said that to collect data, ‘the aircraft is equipped with a camera system with infrared and color cameras; still photos and video’. They deliver data to a portal through Intterra using a web browser. Operators in the aircraft draw a line around a fire to depict a perimeter, making it easier to find homes and infrastructure.
Collecting data is critical because, ‘keeping firefighters safe is high on our list; what we provide can help with evacuations, valuable stuff’. Dikken noted that the variation in data is also vital. “Information is important in making decisions; we do map areas of the fire relative to the heat.
Collecting data is critical because information is important in making decisions
This is a judgment based on what the operator sees through the camera,” he said. “We will say, ‘this part of the fire is smoldering, this part of the fire is very intense’. Where it is most intense is where it’s moving.” They’re collecting data, but putting it on a map providing imagery.
For Dikken, it comes down to performance measurement: “Fires we found, acres mapped.” He concluded that fuel usage and people or staffing are important to budgeting, but they focus on the bigger picture of safety.
SKYTRAC – satellite communications and intelligent connectivity in data collection
SKYTRAC of British Columbia, Canada, has been around for 35 years and serves over 800 customers on all seven continents. SKYTRAC collects and transmits data to improve operator safety and efficiencies, such as position data for flight following, tank drop data for management and contractual requirements, flight data for operational quality assurance (FDM/FOQA), load data for airframe stress monitoring and more.
Reuben Mann, SKYTRAC Head of Marketing, said: “Data collection is critical to aerial firefighting for numerous reasons. One of the most fundamental aspects is to satisfy US Forest Service (USFS) Initial Usage Evaluation and Continuous Monitoring requirements, which requires auto-forwarding data to the Forest Service Airworthiness Branch.”
He shared a story about a customer: “Coulson supports operations in North America, South America, Australia and Asia, via a diverse fleet of day and night aerial assets. Coulson has focused its next-generation multi-mission fleet on sustainable, in-production aircraft such as the Boeing 737, the Lockheed C-130 and Boeing CH-47. Working in partnership with the original equipment manufacturer and leveraging the latest technology allows Coulson to provide superior all-hazard response aircraft.
“Coulson Aviation required streamlining and data integration to effectively manage its global fleet in multiple countries to sustain rapid growth. With various government agencies selecting Coulson Aviation services to battle wildfires across the globe, Coulson Aviation required a solution that could integrate with multiple agencies and their internal systems.
Streamlining and data integration is required to effectively manage a global fleet in multiple countries
“To simplify operations, Coulson Aviation required a solution with automated postflight Operational Loads Monitoring (OLM) data offloading, through cost-effective cellular connectivity, capable of sending data to Coulson Aviation headquarters and their government partners.”
SKYTRAC’s solution was used to enable automated data management with wireless offloading, collecting numerous parameters through digital and analog onboard systems. SKYTRAC’s unique mix of hardware, satellite and cellular airtime, and other onboard connectivity and communication solutions can provide powerful capabilities for operators, but reliable data acquisition and transmission is the most critical aspect for operators.
Overall, SKYTRAC offered Coulson a variety of data management and transmission devices through their offerings. Mann said: “Coulson Aviation is now able to automate postflight data offloading, access rich data and analytics globally in one dashboard, automatically forward data to government partners and reduce the burden on maintenance staff.”
Data collection, transmission, assessment and visualization are critical for all aerial firefighting operations today. Through the perspectives of software and equipment providers, pilots, state and government agencies and private enterprises, it is easy to see that the evolution of technology will ultimately save lives and provide more excellent safety to worldwide communities.