From the Hexacopter: A Bird’s Eye View on Fire

What would you find out if you could hover a hundred feet above a prescribed fire?

As you might have noticed, smoke from burning trees rises quickly, especially if there’s wind. Getting measurements of smoke once it gets above the canopy is very difficult, and up to now, very expensive. Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service recently took a hexacopter—a small unmanned copter with six rotors—for a test drive as a way to get better information about fire and smoke.

“We first took a test flight in a field near the University of Georgia,” says Scott Goodrick, project leader of the Forest Service Southern Research Station Center for Forest Disturbance Science. “Then a friend told me he was doing a prescribed burn on his pasture, so we took it out there to see how it would perform. We’re very impressed with how easy it is to maneuver the hexacopter.”

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With GPS and autopilot built in, the hexacopter can be programmed to fly a sequence of coordinates and to hover at a certain point for as long as the operator desires. It also broadcasts its position to a laptop, where an operator can see where the hexacopter is on Google Earth and move its position as needed.

“For now we’re just using the camera, which provides very good images,” says Goodrick. “Eventually we’ll add an infrared camera so that we can measure different aspects of fire from overhead, as well instruments to measure weather variables and particulate matter in smoke from fire. At some point, we’ll be able to measure what happens to vegetation after a fire and compare this to the data taken by satellites.”

For more information, email Scott Goodrick at

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