Textron’s Aerosonde SUAS awaits US Forestry Service response

The Aerosonde Mark 4.7 operated by Textron Systems is launched from a catapult and recovered with a large net. The company has more than 100,000 flight hours, which has seen it used in hurricanes and the Arctic, but this was its first use on wildfires. Textron Systems

Back in September 2015, the 75-80Ib Textron Systems Aerosonde small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was trialled by the US Forestry Service (USFS).  Usually this UAS is operated by the military in the intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), so working with a civilian organisation is a step-change.

In the US you cannot fight an active fire after sundown, so there is often a 10-hour hiatus when fire fighters will have no idea of what is happening.  Trialling a UAS went some way to covering that gap when USFS personnel in Idaho wanted to understand the drone collecting intelligence, when other aircraft were grounded.

Textron Systems, Dennis Racine, Senior Vice President, Textron Systems told Tangent Link in early June: “we used infra-red (IR) payloads and software to keep an eye on the fires.  The footage can tell the air tankers exactly where to drop – a useful tool, to show what’s going on and assist those fighting fires.

During the Idaho fires demonstration, Textron Systems flew two different variants of the United Technologies/Cloud Cap Technologies T400 sensor.  One variant was the payload usually used for ISR by the military, and the other enhanced the thermal imagery with calibrated temperature measurement for precise hot spot detection.

Racine continued, “we fly full motion video and stream that into the command centre and operating centre, over the vehicle’s location.  So incident commanders can make snap decisions. “

Textron Systems has developed its own own payloads for wildfires, which add IR imagery over a mapping component to keep abreast of the the fire line.  Very handy at night when the other aircraft are grounded.

The longest mission undertaken during the trial was between 6-7 hours, with an air command aircraft keeping check on the air space.  Racine added, “we flew above all the other aircraft, calling in the locations to drop water.  After the three-day trial we provided all the maps and analysis to the USFS which deemed them very useful.  We have also flown the system in Australia where they have been quite successful.”

Air Operations Branch Director Gary Munson of the USFS told AP in September 2015, “If the night flights go well, we hope to gradually integrate it into daytime operations.”.

Air space restrictions are the main issue.  While limits on the 55Ib class have been outlined and published, it is not the case for the over 55Ib UAS’ which need to have air space de-conflict regulations.

Twenty months on, no decision has been made, but that doesn’t bother Racine.  “These things take a while.  The Department of Interior has set up a UAS group to study and look at the technologies which could benefits its other services, including Geological Survey.  They want to know what technologies are out there, how they can work with it.  It makes sense.”

While the US fire season has got longer and more server, it only takes up half of the year, but with DoI wanting to maximise its resources, a study is being carried out on how such systems can work in other environments.  Then once a conclusion is reached, its likely they will acquire a service, not buy the UAS.

“We turn up, we fly, provide the services and we go” Racine continued and it’s the way Textron works with much of the military.  He finishes, we could see something within next two years.  I’m confident they are working on it – but time wise they need to understand the desire of the whole department not just the Forestry service.”