Drones + Augmented Reality = Help for Firefighters

ScanEagles soar over active fires, while viewers explore the scene using holograms.


The Boeing subsidiary Insitu is looking at a new way to help fight wildfires by combining its ScanEagle drone with another hot technology, augmented reality. The system dramatically increases firefighters’ understanding of a blaze by showing data streamed real-time from the ScanEagle as it flies above the fire. The real-time imagery is combined with a high-resolution digital terrain model and other data, and displayed to a viewer wearing Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses. The drone can loiter over a fire for up to 24 hours, letting a viewer keep constant watch over the fire and track its development.

Not only do the images show flames and embers invisible to the naked eye (that can catch unknowing firefighters off guard), the system is able to “see through” overgrowth and brush thanks to a thermal infrared scanner that detects variations in temperature, day or night. The HoloLens glasses show the viewer a three-dimensional hologram of the fire with all key elements of the scene clearly identified. The wearer can even control the ScanEagle using the system, and eventually will be able to control an entire fleet of drones. Microsoft is among those working on gaze control, whereby drone operators control the vehicles simply by looking around the AR scene and re-directing their eyes.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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