Hoffman motion platform deploys state-of-the-art FLIR ball
BY TOM HOFFMAN, CEO/PRESIDENT
As I write this, two new fires have broken out in the Sierra. One of them, the TrailHead fire spanning the boundary between Placer and El Dorado Counties, threatens hundreds of structures and nearly a thousand acres. Daytime temperatures are hovering well over 95° at the fire’s elevation.
Annually-speaking, wildfires are getting worse, especially in the West. The Insurance Information Institute says:
The 2015 fire season set a new record for the number of acres burned in the United States. Between January 1 and December 30, 2015 there were 68,151 wildfires, which burned 10,125,149 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. During the same period in 2014, 63,417 fires burned 3,577,620 acres. The previous record was set in 2006 at 9,873,745 acres… In the first five months of 2016… about 1.6 million acres were burned… compared with 410,990 in 2015.
Into the smoke and heat come aircraft-mounted forward-looking infrared radiation (FLIR) sensors. They are mounted on Hoffman’s FLIR ball assembly, shown below as an artist’s concept. This is a motion platform that extends the ball – where the sensors and electronics are located – into the airstream. The ball is capable of 360°of rotation. Read more about it here.
The FLIR ball performs one job remarkably well. “We can see the forest through the smoke,” said Courtney Aviation wildfire air attack pilot Mark Zaller. “We direct the work being done by the tankers, the firefighters on the ground – the people – and where the fire is going.” Zaller has been flying since the 1970’s.
Day and night, it provides real-time digital imagery both in the cockpit and to fire commanders on the ground. The imagery is GPS-indexed to enable air tankers to “bomb” fire targets with military precision.
The motion assembly is installed in a Turbo Aero Commander 500B owned by Courtney Aviation and based at Columbia airport near Sonora. California.
As photographed here and shown above, the extended ball is seen in the operational position. That’s me in the inset photo, standing near the ball beside the cockpit window.
Flying under contract with the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire, Courtney’s operational territory includes the most fire-prone regions of California, extending from around Bakersfield in the south to beyond Redding in the north, a stretch of more than 500 miles north to south and ~200 miles east to west.
From its mountain base near the mid-point of this region, Courtney flies on extremely short notice. The company’s territory embraces the Sierra Nevada. Trinity Alps, Siskiyou’s and coastal ranges stretching hundreds of miles. With cruise speed above 300 mph, the Turbo Aero Commanders can be over most new fire in minutes. It’s not rocket science to realize that early fire suppression is the key to reduced devastation and damage.
This vast territory includes landmark sites like Yosemite National Park, Mt. Shasta, Lassen and Whitney, many national forests and most of California’s state forests.
FLIR Ball Delivers State-of-the-Art Images
The ball is designed and manufactured by Cloud Cap Technology (Hood River, Oregon), a business unit of UTC Aerospace, and sold as the TASE 200 system. Courtney Aviation integrates the lightweight system with the custom-designed Hoffman motion platform. The ball itself employs a gimbal-stabilized motion system. Using a rugged touchscreen Fujitsu notebook computer right in the cockpit, an operator “flies” the ball using Cloud Cap’s Viewpoint software. Zaller says the system is relatively easy to use. “We can bring a new operator-observer up to speed in minutes.”
A YouTube video narrated by Zaller provides an exciting example of the system in actual use. See it here (highly recommended).
In addition to forward-looking infrared sensor that sees through smoke, the ball includes a digital camera with a 30X zoom lens. A special algorithm developed by Courtney enables the infrared part of the system to differentiate the infrared signature of hot granite on a sunny day with actual fire.
A typical mission might last over four hours. Zaller says Viewpoint software “provides the crucial brains for operating the ball and the cameras.” In operation, he says, the imagery – both infrared and standard visual -- can be re-distributed to the smartphones of the firefighters on the ground. And, through the same radio downlink, the imagery can be converted to a 3D image to enable a GIS mapping team to draw the perimeters of a growing fire (which, in turn, is shared with the media to inform the public).
“It’s fantastic technology and we want others to take advantage of it,” exclaims Zaller. “We’re working toward a standard to make this available to all forest firefighters.”
Because the system is lightweight, at some future point it could deployed on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s or drones) that are flown from the ground. Given its capabilities, Courtney Aviation’s system is destined to continue to improve wildfire management.