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.