A system using aircraft-based infrared remote sensing and specialized data-processing techniques to provide forest fire mapping almost in real time for firefighters has begun development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Forest Service.

Called FIREFLY, the new project calls for compact computerized flight system, mounted in Forest Service aircraft, to integrate multichannel infrared images from its sensor with location data from the aircraft navigation system and to produce simple, precise map information on the perimeter or boundary of the fire and associated hot spots. This information is transmitted in digital form to the Forest Service's portable field computer system, and special ground terminal will then construct fire maps for field commanders while the survey is still going on.

JPL is responsible for developing the airborne part of the system, including the software, while the Forest Service is developing the digital communications link and the ground terminal, both to be integrated into its field computer and communications system, called INCINET.

FIREFLY is the outgrowth of previous JPL work sponsored by the Forest Service and by NASA's Office of Technology Utilization. The system draws on many years of JPL/NASA technical developments in remote sensing and the 25 year JPL development of digital image processing, used for enhancing spacecraft pictures of other planets and other applications ranging from medical diagnosis to geological exploration. It also benefits from the growth of commercial infrared-sensor industry, based on space and defense-related technologies and serving many government and commercial needs.

The current Forest Service infrared survey system is the JPL-developed FLAME infrared line-scanner system, which has been used extensively on major fires, including the Summer 1988 Yellowstone conflagration. This system captures its data on film; the aircraft must land before an interpreter can transfer the data by hand to working maps, task which can take hours. FIREFLY will use the space-based Global Positioning System satellites for more accurate mapping and will transmit processed data directly to the fire incident camps for computer plotting on working maps, reducing to minutes the time between observation and mapping.

"Cutting the turnaround time in getting information to the firefighters is the key," says Dr. J. David Nichols, JPL's task manager for FIREFLY. "We will gain time in two ways: processing the data and integrating the location information in the airborne computer, and communicating directly -- computer to computer -- with the mapping system on the ground."

Another strength of the system is its modular design, which facilitates use of off-the-shelf hardware (reducing cost) and later system upgrades, and eases maintenance. Later modifications to the remote-sensing system could increase the number of channels to allow surveys of pest damage, disease, and other adverse effects before each fire season.

The developers hope to test FIREFLY software and data-handling equipment with outputs from the FLAME sensor by the 1991 fire season, and to have the full FIREFLY system at work during the 1992 season.

At JPL, the task is part of the Environmental Technology Program Office, managed by Dr. Amy L. Walton. FIREFLY's Project Manager, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service in Washington, D.C., is William L. McCleese.

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