With much of the West mired in drought conditions heading into the summer, the U.S. Forest Service is preparing for what could be another damaging wildfire season. This year, firefighters will be armed with an updated tool to help them battle fires with the precision of special forces on the battlefield. The instrument, known as the “Autonomous Modular Sensor,” or AMS, can help the Forest Service detect wildfires and conduct post-burn assessments.
While similar devices have been in use for several years, scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., working with the Forest Service, recently deployed a new version with expanded capabilities that will allow firefighters on the ground to request overflights during the day, when wildfires tend to be most active. Previously, such flights were conducted at night due to the limitations of the older generation instrument.
“Being able to fly during the day would give us an additional capability that we don’t currently have,” said Everett Hinkley, the director of remote sensing for the Forest Service.
The new sensor transmits data in near real-time to crews on the ground to analyze and improve decision making. The new instrument operates like a spinning mirror, and it paints a stripe on the ground perpendicular to the motion of flight, scanning that land for signs of heat and other characteristics that mark wildfire activity, Hinkley said. It provides a higher resolution overview of a wildfire compared to satellites, which can also detect burn areas, but don’t have a high enough resolution to allow the images to be used for tactical firefighting decisions, such as where to place “hotshot” crews, and where to conduct airborne water drops.
The Forest Service has installed the new instrument on a Cessna Citation Jet, and may add it to a King Air turboprop aircraft. It will be capable of scanning 100,000 acres per hour, for a total of about 1,000 square miles, during a typical 6-hour flight, Hinkley said.