A sleek, white aircraft is expected to cut through the smoke high above the Castle Rock Fire as you sleep tonight.
It is expected to beam back visual and thermal images to help fire commanders on the ground know where the fire's hot spots are. And another thing—it will fly for 20 hours without a pilot before returning to California and landing.
The Ikhana is a stealthy, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can fly for long distances, stay aloft for as long as 24 hours and is controlled by two "pilots' with control sticks sitting at consoles at a base in the Mojave Desert. The control station is a trailer at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.
NASA took possession of the Ikhana aircraft a few months ago, and it will be used primarily for earth science missions like the one it's performing now. It is scheduled to take off from Edwards Air Force Base at 1 p.m. MST today, Aug. 29, to fly almost 700 miles to Idaho where it will fly over seven fires burning in the state, including the Castle Rock Fire. It will stay aloft for 20 hours before landing at 9 a.m. MST on Thursday, Aug. 30. It is also scheduled to fly one fire in Montana.
The mission over the Castle Rock Fire was scheduled twice last week but aborted after air space was closed over Nevada and the air base runway was being worked on.
It will fly each Idaho fire twice providing fire bosses with critical information to help them fight the stubborn, massive blazes here that have consumed at least two million acres. The Castle Rock Fire is number two on the list.
The Ikhana is a spin-off of the Predator B, the pilot-less drone, that armed with the Hellfire missile has been used in the Middle East to kill insurgents in moving vehicles and in buildings. In recent televised interviews with military experts the Predator B was cited as the weapon of choice to kill Osama bin Laden, if he is located.
The experimental Ikhana uses sophisticated sensors developed by a team from NASA lead by Vince Ambrosia of NASA's Western States Fire Mission project.
"These tests are a ground breaking effort to expand the use of unmanned aircraft systems in providing real-time images in an actual fire event," he said in a news release.
The sensors measure heat emitted from the earth's surface up to 1,000 degrees centigrade and they can differentiate within a one-half degree of sensitivity, Ambrosia said in a telephone interview.
"They'll be looking for the active portions of the fire," said Jan Johnson, a contract remote sensing specialist with the Forest Service in Salt Lake City. "This is really cool stuff," he said of high-tech capabilities of the Ikhana.
The remote plane flew it's first fire recon mission two weeks ago on California's huge Zaca Fire near Santa Barbara. The craft has a small, nose-mounted camera to see where it's going. It flew more than 10,000 miles during a 12-hour period using its new imaging sensors.
As the Ikhana gathers its fire images it immediately sends them to a satellite that relays them back to earth to the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Then, in almost real-time, they can be e-mailed to fire commanders on the ground and the federal National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
Using the Ikhana for fire missions has been a jointly funded project that NASA and the Forest Service have been working on for five years, but it's in the last two to three years that their efforts have come to fruition.
"It's very exciting—almost a relief," Ambrosia said. "We've been working on this for many years ... it's kind of been our dreams within the two agencies."
Fire incident commanders are optimistic that this new high-tech tool can give them a big heads-up on what's happening on major wildfires.
"They're extremely excited about this. They have become real cheerleaders for this technology," said Everett Hinkley, liaison and special projects group leader with the Forest Service Remote Sensing Application Center in Salt Lake City. Hinkley spoke from Edwards Air Force Base.
"The images from the flight demonstrated that this technology has a future in helping us fight wildland fires," said Zaca Fire (Santa Barbara County, Calif.) incident commander Mike Dietrich, in a NASA news release. "We could see little on the ground since the fire was generating a lot of smoke and burning in a very remote and inaccessible area."
The Ikhana aircraft will "help produce the morning maps that go to each (fire) briefing at 6 a.m. at each fire," said Hinkley.
The older technology will still be in use, though. Normally a small fixed wing, piloted plane flies over a fire late at night at high altitude and thermal images retrieved are dropped to commanders on the ground with a drop tube, or the plane lands with it's maps, Hinkley said.
But the Ikhana can fly for as long as 24 hours straight, and it needs no coffee or other breaks.
"Just to have a mission of this duration is a real step forward," said Hinkley.
The Ikhana cruises at a speed of between 160 and 180 knots. It's 36 feet long with a wingspan of 66 feet. It can carry 400 pounds of sensors internally and another 2,000 pounds on wing pods.