Machine Design

Newest forest firefighter: Predator UAV

The firefighting team bat t l ing the recent California wildfires got a helping hand from Ikhana, a Predator B UAV from General Atomics in San Diego ( and modified by NASA with an IR imager

Launched and controlled from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base, the unmanned drone flew 22,000 ft over major blazes as its IR imager peered through smoke and haze, detecting hot spots and determining ground temperatures to within 0.5°C. That image data was processed then relayed through a communications satellite to NASA’s Ames Center near San Jose where it was overlaid on Google Earth maps and sent to the interagency fire center in Boise, Idaho. From there it was sent to firefighters on the scene in California. The accurate, real-time data let fire commanders anticipate the fire and better allocate resources.

The first of Ikhana’s real-world missions was Aug 16, when it flew 1,200 miles over a 10-hr period, covering the Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County. It was also used extensively in October to monitor several fires in southern California, including one that came close to the Mount Palomar Observatory.

These wildfires weren’t the first time NASA used one of its unmanned planes to help fight a fire. In October 2006, an arsonist, with help from dry underbrush and Santa Ana winds, set the Esperanza fire. Over six days, the fire covered 62 sq miles, destroyed 34 homes and 20 other buildings, and killed five firemen. To keep an eye on it, NASA and the FAA cooperated to let an Altair, another drone from General Atomics, fly over the fire within 24 hr.


Thermal-infrared imaging sensors on NASA’s Ikhana aircraft recorded this image of wildfires near Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California on Oct. 25. The 3D-processed image is a colorized mosaic of images draped over terrain, looking east. Active fire is yellow, and previously burned but still hot areas are shades of dark red and purple. Unburned areas are green.


A modified Predator B from General Atomics, dubbed Ikhana, the Native American Choctaw word for “aware” or “intelligent,” flies over wildfires in southern California. The pod slung beneath the left wing carries NASA’s Autonomous Modular Scanner, a self-contained IR-thermal imager.


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