NASA Testing Mobile Air Traffic Management Kits

As part of a national effort to improve wildfire response, NASA researchers recently tested a mobile air traffic management kit for remote ground pilots across forests throughout Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.

[Above photo by NASA]

During the testing, U.S. Forest Service pilots remotely operated Unmanned Aircraft Systems or drones to drop ping pong ball-sized plastic spheres that ignited on impact, precisely burning dead brush that acts as fuel to wildfires. NASA noted in a statement that this testing supports its Wildland Fire Management Initiative.

The Aerial Ignition Academy training, hosted by the U.S. Forest Service, in collaboration with the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center, provided pilots with a chance to train using drones for prescribed burns – a wildfire prevention and land management technique that employs the controlled use of fire to burn fuels like dead brush and vegetation.

During the training, researchers from NASA’s Advanced Capabilities for Emergency Response Operations or ACERO project shadowed drone pilots as they trained in the field and collected data on the use of NASA’s mobile air traffic pilot kit.

That kit alerted pilots positioned in forests throughout the five southwestern states to air traffic detected in the surrounding area — enhancing their ability to avoid airspace conflicts while conducting prescribed burns.

NASA noted that drone pilots are accustomed to monitoring their airspace by visually scanning for neighboring aircraft, listening for their engine sounds, and tracking local air traffic radio channels. The agency said its air traffic management kits “complement” that awareness by providing a cohesive view of crewed aircraft and their location in the airspace.

NASA added that the ability to ignite prescribed burns with drones offers a safer approach to this process; removing firefighters from harm’s way. Under NASA’s Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations or STEReO project, the U.S. Forest Service became a key collaborator during the initial stages of this technology, and continues to support the development of new versions that could enable the safe integration of drones into mainstream use for wildfire prevention and land management.

The recent field testing gave ACERO team members insight into how the kit performs in a prescribed fire environment. The ACERO team also gathered feedback from drone operators regarding the kit’s design features, user interface, and general capabilities.

“It was a successful data collection exercise,” said Lynne Martin, the leader of the ACERO Wildfire Airspace Management team for NASA. “We demonstrated the kit to 24 trainees and eight instructors and obtained feedback from all.”

She added that the ACERO project is focused on advancing airspace management technologies to improve wildfire management operations and enable remotely piloted drones to safely monitor and operate on wildland fires 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In the coming years, NASA said it expects to partner with industry and wildfire response agencies to perform further field demonstrations of its drone-based aviation technologies.

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