Charlie Lambert and his team members from Sky Sentry, based in Falcon, CO, journeyed north to the Large Wildland Fires Conference in Missoula with a large inflatable raft in tow. But they made the journey to demonstrate a technology that rides on air, not water.
Sky Sentry’s raft provides a landing cushion for an aerostat, a large tethered balloon capable of rising 500 feet or more into the air while carrying high-resolution camera and communications equipment. The balloon is combined with a kite structure, which increases the aerostat’s lift.
Aerostat technology offers many applications to wildland firefighting and management, from incident command applications to fire ecology research. The Large Wildland Fires Conference is the first time the general firefighting community has been formally introduced to the technology, though Colorado Springs firefighters have had experience with them, according to Lambert.
The biggest advantage that aerostats offer over other technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) that provide a bird’s eye view is their persistence, Lambert said. Aerostats don’t need someone to constantly watch over them; carry higher quality equipment; use less power; and require no more infrastructure than a means to haul some helium tanks to inflate the balloon.
“They’re a communications and surveillance node in the sky,” Lambert said.
Lambert and his team have put extensive time and energy into developing the aerostat technology. In the process they’ve learned that aerostats depend on a careful balance of size, weight, and lift power–what Lambert refers to as SWAP. Generally the aerostats get one pound of lift per cubic foot of helium. They also come in custom sizes and range from as small as about 1.5 cubic yards to 100 feet in length.
Sky Sentry can provide full payload packages or tailor an aerostat to customer payload and requirements. Cameras range from those made for daytime use, all the way to cameras sensitive to mid-wave infrared radiation that could differentiate a warm body from a cool background. Communications equipment follows a similar spectrum, from simple repeater systems to self-forming and self-healing MANET-type systems.
Lambert also believes the multi-spectral imagery equipment that Sky Sentry can provide will be of particular relevance to the firefighting community.
Sky Sentry has already done some work with the mining community, another safety-minded and tradition-based industry. Lambert and his colleagues are enjoying “planting the seeds” about aerostats in the minds of the firefighting community, in the hopes more of the community’s leadership will want to learn more about the technology.
Lambert demonstrated a 14-foot aerostat at the Large Wildland Fire Conference with the help of one employee, Mark Gardner, and a few collaborators, emphasizing the relative simplicity of using the smaller-sized balloons.
“Once they really learn its full capabilities I think they would embrace it and demand it, and they would see its usefulness . . . in fighting fires and protecting lives of the fire fighters on the ground,” Mark Gardner said.