NASA’s Advanced Capabilities for Emergency Response Operations (ACERO) project – led by the agency’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California – is using drones and advanced aviation technologies to improve airspace management in wildland fire coordination and operations.

The US Forest Service reports that numerous wildfires erupt yearly, emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming, and consuming around 1.5 million acres of forests and grasslands across the country. Suppressing these wildfires is multifaceted and expensive, with an average cost of $2.9 billion for five years. Firefighters and ground crews must work together, and multiple government agencies must coordinate the use of dozens of aircraft to contain and respond to these blazes.

Drones Increase Safety and Effectiveness of Wildfire Operations

Aerial firefighting operations are currently restricted to periods when aircraft have clear visibility due to the risk of collision with terrain or other aircraft. Consequently, aircraft are grounded at night and during periods of heavy smoke. Drones can overcome this limitation by enabling safe operations by ground-based pilots, thereby expanding the window of time available for aerial suppression. Utilizing drones for aerial suppression operations would not only reduce safety risks to pilots but also enhance the effectiveness of aerial wildfire operations.

Despite the significant advancements in drone and aviation technologies over the past decade, emergency responders have been slow to adopt these tools. One of the major obstacles to this adoption is the lack of situational awareness and tools available for responders to track firefighting drones’ whereabouts. To overcome this challenge, ACERO is working on developing airspace management technologies that will enable crewed aircraft, drone operators, and ground crews to share information during wildfire responses. These technologies will facilitate the exchange of common situational awareness, ensuring that there are no conflicts with aircraft operations. Additionally, ACERO will create aircraft safety software that can reduce the risk of encountering airborne hazards. The situational awareness provided by these technologies will enable responders to integrate drones into wildfire operations safely, allowing them to continuously suppress and monitor a fire throughout its entire lifetime, which is currently not feasible.

ACERO’s advancements in aerial communication and information-sharing tools and concepts will improve airspace management during wildland fires and provide response crews more timely information to support decision-making during emergency response. These advancements are critical for enabling new drone missions for aerial wildfire response, like fire suppression, delivering gear to ground crews, and providing communication relays in areas with limited connectivity.

Prescribed burns, which are controlled fires set by experts to eliminate dead brush and other fuels that can lead to large-scale wildland fires, could also benefit from the use of drones. At present, piloted helicopters, ground crews, and a limited number of drones are used to conduct these burns. However, utilizing drones for this purpose would be more cost-effective and safer than deploying ground crews and helicopters. Additionally, using drones would enable crews to perform controlled burns over larger areas of land each year.

The Future of Wildland Fire Response

ACERO is partnering with government agencies, the scientific community, and commercial industries to create a vision for the future of wildland fire management. The project’s team is leading an interagency working group that aims to assess and identify the necessary concepts and technologies required to tackle future challenges. ACERO will collaborate with other government agencies to facilitate the integration of these technologies into wildland fire operations.

Over the next few years, NASA will collaborate with wildfire response agencies and industry partners to conduct joint field demonstrations of newly developed aviation technologies led by ACERO. These demonstrations will showcase advancements from NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, Science Mission Directorate, and Space Technology Mission Directorate.

ACERO’s aviation technologies for wildland fire operations are based on earlier NASA Aeronautics research, such as the Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations project and the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management project. These advancements in aviation align with NASA’s commitment to achieving the US target of net-zero aviation greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Additionally, the project supports NASA’s Advanced Air Mobility research, which will guide the industry’s development of electric air taxis and drones, and aid the Federal Aviation Administration in safely integrating such vehicles into the national airspace.

ACERO is funded by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, managed by the agency’s Airspace Operations and Safety Program.

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