NASA, USDA-FS, and NOAA have teamed together in supporting the NASA/USDA-FS Fire Mission for the summer of 2006. NASA will provide overall operational coordination of the Fire Mission with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., the manufacturer and operator of the Altair UAS platform. The Altair payload includes a multi-spectral infrared remote fire sensor, a high resolution carbon monoxide in situ sensor, and NASA Dryden's Research Environment for Vehicle-Embedded Analysis on Linux (REVEAL) instrument which will provide data transmission to the ground. The main purpose of the mission is to remotely detect the infrared signature of hot spots in forest fires over the Western US using the long endurance (24 hours plus) and high altitude capabilities (13 km, 43,000 ft.) of this UAS platform. This will enable USDA-FS to direct fire-fighting resources to these areas.
According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) web site, there have been 61,000 wildland fires across the lower 48 states with over 4 million acres (larger than the state of Connecticut) burned before July 9th, the most over a 6-year period. The NOAA National Weather Service issues different categories of fire advisories and the NCDC issues a US Drought Monitor map to the public. Naturally occurring (lightning strikes) and human influenced forest fires (fires in the tropics to convert forests into farmland (deforestation), fires started by human neglect, etc.) release trace gases that can significantly influence climate and regional air quality. Weather and water, and climate are two of the four major goals of NOAA’s mission where UAS platforms can increase our understanding by providing more data to predictive models.
NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) will provide the Unmanned aircraft system Chromatograph for Atmospheric Trace Species (UCATS) instrument as the largest part of its contribution to the Fire Mission. The instrument has been enhanced since its last use in the NOAA UAS Demonstration of 2005 to measure water vapor (H2O) by tunable diode laser spectroscopy, and carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), and hydrogen (H2) on one of its two gas chromatographic channels. The other channel will measure nitrous oxide (N2O) and an indicator of electrical power distribution, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). A new, more precise ultraviolet ozone (O3) photometer has also been installed. These trace gases, excluding SF6, measured by UCATS are produced during forest fires. ESRL scientists will also provide some pre- and post-flight planning, including potential vorticity plots (PV) and satellite overpass locations for the NASA Aura Satellite whose instruments measure common trace gas species with Altair's sensors. NOAA’s plan for the future is to utilize new technologies including UAS platforms to accomplish its missions.