Give this drone support

Published 10:14 pm Thursday, October 9, 2014

The vastness of the Great Dismal Swamp is hard to grasp. Encompassing 112,000 acres, the national wildlife refuge is 175 square miles of wilderness.

It’s so big that escaped slaves used it as a hideout during and before the Civil War. It’s so big that fires can start there without refuge officials ever knowing, except when those fires begin to spread through the peat soil that provides a nearly inexhaustible source of fuel. When that happens, as it did in 2011, after a lightning strike set a fire, the conflagration can grow to the point at which it’s nearly unmanageable. That fire and another like it in 2008 cost the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service more than $10 million to extinguish. Its smoke could be seen as far away as Maryland and frequently left Suffolk encompassed in haze for the months it took to put it out.

Refuge managers hope that a partnership with NASA will help them solve the problem of finding future fires before they get to that point.

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The agency has developed a 15-pound radio-controlled airplane equipped with cameras and transmitters that can fly as fast as 40 miles an hour. It has a camera in its nose that can be used to spot plumes of smoke, as well as an infrared camera in the body that points down to detect hot spots.

If the Federal Aviation Administration approves the plan, the refuge would use the drone to fly over the vast swamp after thunderstorms in search of fires ignited by lightning strikes. Early detection of such fires gives officials a chance to extinguish them before they can grow.

Currently, after a thunderstorm, the service has to bring in a helicopter from Roanoke and pay $4,000, at a minimum, to operate it as it searches for smoke from lightning strikes. And the chopper is not always available right away.

The drone also could have been useful, had it been available, during last year’s search for a small plane with four people aboard that went down in the swamp. The search lasted more than 24 hours, and all four were dead when rescuers arrived.

If this drone gets FAA approval, it could serve as a model for other refuges around the nation. Considering the ubiquity of drones used in the U.S. these days for everything from professional photography to police surveillance, this particular aircraft should get the full support of the FAA.