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NASA Aids Fight Against California Wildfires


An advanced firefighting tool went to work yesterday in Southern California. NASA launched an unmanned aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base north of Los Angeles. The plane is called Ikhana, which is a Choctaw word meaning intelligence.


The Ikhana is outfitted with a thermal infrared scanner that measures heat coming off of fires. That data is then converted to images and sent back to the ground via satellite. It helps firefighters better react to conditions on the ground.

Vince Ambrosia is the senior research scientist monitoring the plane's mission from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. He calls the plane a new set of eyes.

Dr. VINCE AMBROSIA (National Interagency Fire Center): We can easily see through, you know, a 30,000 or 40,000 foot smoke column, you know, flying overhead, where you would otherwise be blind to what's going on on the terrain. So these missions really prove out their worth in helping the incident commander know where to deploy his resources and, you know, where certain hotspots are to keep watch on.

INSKEEP: There is a person flying this unmanned plane. The person's name is Mark Pestana. He's a NASA research pilot keeping watch over the Ikhana from Edwards Air Force Base. He flies it remotely from a ground control station equipped much like a normal cockpit, with one major difference.

Lieutenant Colonel MARK PESTANA (NASA Pilot): I'll describe it how my instructor in this airplane described it. I stepped into the cockpit and I've lost four of my five senses. In other words, I only have vision. I can't hear the engines. I can't feel the accelerations or vibrations. I can't smell an overheat condition in some system, or taste the electrical fire that might be happening. All this information has to be gleaned through your eyes, and they're all displayed on various screens, so it's very different to be able to take it in just with your eyes.

NEARY: NASA expects the unmanned aircraft, the Ikhana, to be in the air again today, monitoring hotspots and fire lines as the wildfires continue across Southern California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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