NOAA Finds Colorado Partners for Nighttime Wildfire Measurements with sUAS


Black Swift Technologies (BST), a specialized engineering firm based in Boulder, Colo., is supplying its small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) nighttime wildfire measurements.

The sUAS will be operated by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Integrated Remote & In Situ Sensing Program (IRISS) in close collaboration with NOAA and in support of the agency’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research’s (OAR) FIREX field mission and fire-weather forecasting initiative.

BST says it will deliver a tightly integrated system consisting of an airframe, avionics and multiple sensors capable of measuring the chemical contents of wildfire plumes and creating multispectral, high-resolution maps of wildfires.

“One of the purposes of IRISS is to work with the science community to develop and deploy platforms which make primarily in situ measurements,” states Brian Argrow, chair of Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences and director of IRISS. “This naturally led us to partnerships with NOAA on the science perspective and to Black Swift Technologies for their sUAS technology and expertise. It’s a partnership that looks like a three-legged stool with the science interest of NOAA, the technology and engineering expertise of IRISS, and the unique sUAS platform designed by Black Swift Technologies as the corresponding legs.”

The NightFOX drone being used for the project is based on BST’s commercially available SuperSwift airframe and SwiftCore flight management system.

“Our proposed work, if successful, will significantly advance the integration of UAS-based observations of wildfires into fire-weather modeling and forecasting,” says Dr. Ru-Shan Gao, principal investigator of the chemical sciences division at NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory. “The collected data will also provide otherwise missing data for studying the impact of North American wildfires on the atmosphere and human health – and ultimately supporting better land management decisions and practices, thus contributing to NOAA OAR’s core mission to ‘advance understanding and prediction of the Earth System to enhance society’s ability to make effective decisions.’”

According to BST, because of safety concerns, manned aircraft cannot perform this task at night. In addition, ground observations using a mobile laboratory provide detailed chemical information on fire plumes, but they lack information on plume spatial (vertical and horizontal) distribution to put the point measurements in context. In turn, drone observations are the only technology capable of doing the job, the company claims.

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