National Wildfire Coordinating Group

UAS Aerial Ignition

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Aerial Ignition

The Interagency Fire Unmanned Aircraft Systems Subcommittee (IFUASS), Office of Aviation Services (OAS), and National Technology Development Program (NTDP) will work with the Interagency Aerial Ignition Unit (IAIU) to develop, coordinate, and implement strategic and tactical UAS operations, and associated personnel in conjunction with Aviation Managers, geographic area coordination groups, and interagency partners/cooperators.

UAS Aerial Ignition Operations

UAS Aerial Ignitions operations require two Remote Pilots. A minimum of one fully qualified UAS Aerial Ignition (UAS Ai) pilot and one UAS Ai Trainee. UAS Ai operation may require additional support staff referred to collectively as a UAS module. The exact number and configuration may vary by UAS type, but each module will have a designated module leader. A UAS Leader (UASL) may be ordered, if not already assigned to coordinate with personnel such as the local unit managers, state/regional aviation officers, or Air Support Group Supervisor (ASGS) to gain general familiarity regarding the request. Once a specific work assignment is made and the UAS pilot is preparing to initiate aerial ignition activities, the module will work under the direct supervision of the assigned aerial ignition supervisor e.g., Firing Boss, Burn Boss.

For planned events only (Prescribe Fire) UAS Ai can take place with a single Ai pilot that is recognized by IFUASS as an Ai Inspector as long as the second remote pilot has completed S-373, UAS Incident Operations.

Operational Considerations

The following are some operational considerations based on recent experience using UAS for aerial ignition on both planned and unplanned wildfires.

  1. Duration and Capacity: UAS platforms typically have a maximum payload (i.e., number of spheres it can carry) and battery life. A typical operation will require the aircraft to land several times to change batteries and reload the ignition device.
  2. Flight Times: Generally speaking, UAS ignition is faster than ground ignition but slower than traditional helicopter-based aerial ignition.
  3. Operational Tempo: Field units noted that the operational tempo of the Rx burn, and aerial ignition can feel more at ease or relaxed with UAS as compared to occasionally experiencing a more stressful tempo while utilizing piloted aircraft.
  4. Operational Functionality: UAS Aerial Ignition operations functioned closely to helicopter ignitions with respect to communication and standard firing patterns. Communication with the UAS Ai pilot needs to take place prior to mission as launch and recovery areas may be adjusted based on the mission. UAS Ai operations require time to design and plan before operations start. Ignition time frames and organizational structure are different than normal helicopter aerial ignitions.
    1. The assigned Firing Boss/aerial ignition supervisor coordinates and communicates similar to flying in the front seat of a helicopter except they are on the ground.
    2. The assigned Firing Boss/aerial ignition supervisor stands close to the UAS Ai pilot who controls the aircraft through use of a Ground-Control-Station (GCS) that shows the location and activity (e.g., ignition points) of the aircraft. The Firing Boss can point to specific locations on the screen to direct the pilot(s) as to the desired timing and location of spheres. In some instance mirroring the GCS to a larger screen is utilized.
    3. The normal communication sequence used for Plastic Sphere Dispenser (PSD) operations (prepare to fire, start firing, prepare to stop, stop firing) is used. Firing Bosses and UAS Ai pilots have noted the importance of describing the pattern the supervisor wants flown to the pilot on the screen and that the pilot confirms with the supervisor before mission is started.
  5. Connectivity: Generally, UAS are controlled by a ground control unit that must remain within line-of-sight of the UAS. Terrain, vegetation, or other obstructions can interfere with the signal or connectivity, limiting the effective operational distance of the UAS.
  6. Firing Patterns: As noted above, firing patterns can be executed like helicopter firing.
  7. Advantage of Infrared (IR): With thermal imagery on many platforms, UAS can see clearly through smoke. Firing patterns do not usually need to be changed even if that means flying directly into smoked out areas.
  8. Spacing of Ignition Spheres: UAS Aerial Ignition devices can change the drop spacing of ignition spheres during flight to a specific distance, (50 feet, 100 feet, 300 feet, etc.).
  9. Multiple Aircraft: Large burns (1,000+ acres) have been completed with both a single UAS and multiple UAS. Having the ability to use multiple UAS with aerial ignition on the same burn presents a significant advantage. Ignition time frames are reduced, which can aid in smoke management. It can be difficult during larger burns to reach the “far corners” with a single UAS. Having multiple aircraft operating from different locations can more easily cover the areas of larger burns. Fatigue on a single UAS pilot is reduced, as well as wear-and-tear on a single aircraft.
  10. Integration: Field units noted that integration of UAS technology into the Rx fire operation was straight forward and manageable once local units were briefed on UAS operations by qualified UAS personnel.
  11. Communications: On large incidents such as Type I wildfires, UAS operations would typically utilize an air-to-ground frequency as well as monitor the tactical channel(s) on the Divisions they are assigned to. For prescribed fire operations it may be more practical to stay on the local tactical channel used for normal Rx burn operations which allow all personnel the ability to listen and communicate with the aerial ignition Firing Boss who is with the UAS pilot.
    1. Announcing the Location of Aircraft: Ground resources have noted that due to its small size and relatively little noise, it was difficult to locate and keep a mental picture of where the UAS aircraft was in relation to the burn area and ground personnel. This can be easier with a helicopter due its size, and noise.
    2. The Firing Boss (FIRB) must be more intentional and active in announcing the actions of the UAS so that ground personnel are made aware of where and when ignitions are occurring.
    3. The use of landmarks may suffice in an emergency, but when time allows, the use of drop-points or even a grid-pattern overlay on the burn map are extremely useful for the FIRB  to relay the location of the drone to ground resources on the burn (“Lighting from DP 5 to DP 6” or “ignition complete from block A1 on the north to A5 and down the east flank to D6”).
  12. Smoke Management: UAS is an effective tool for monitoring and documenting smoke dispersion via camera and infrared sensors.
  13. Georeferenced Maps: For prescribed burn units or ignitions where map references are critical, accurate georeferenced maps of the burn units are necessary for the UAS GCS to upload in advance. These are displayed on the pilot’s control unit and must be accurate to avoid firing outside of the unit or intended control lines. UAS pilots will confirm accuracy of maps with a recon flight before ignition and can adjust as necessary. Use of recon flights for situational awareness and alternative launch locations is critical to mission success.
  14. Planning/Prework: Planning/logistics is completed by UAS personnel behind the scenes before UAS aerial ignitions commence. This includes studying airspace requirements, airspace deconfliction with local dispatch, filing Notice to Air Mission (NOTAMs), uploading digital maps into the GCS, scouting the burn unit in advance for optimal launch and recovery areas. UAS modules require this time and information at least a day in advance so that they can complete these tasks. These actions will result in a better product on the day of the burn.
  15. Experience of UAS Ai Remote Pilot: UAS pilots with a strong background in wildland fire have shown to be essential. Although a FIRB is required during UAS Ai operation (separate from the Remote Pilots) it has been shown to be more effective having advance knowledge of fire behavior and firing techniques to aid in the mission. This knowledge helps when building a plan and the ability to make adjustments during missions.

UAS Aerial Ignition Equipment Review and Approval Process

The IFUASS will ensure completion of technical reviews for new/proposed UAS Ai payloads, in collaboration with OAS and Forest Service. IFUASS will coordinate with the IAIU prior to recommending payload approval to the National Interagency Aviation Committee (NIAC). The appropriate chair will forward NIAC’s documentation to all agencies/bureaus regarding decision of new equipment. The IAIU or IFUASS Chair will formally notify vendor of NIAC/IFUASS decision.

UAS Aerial Ignition Training and Qualification

UAS Remote Pilots must attend approved agency sponsored training. Only Remote Pilots that attend training and obtain an OAS 30U or FS5700-20B Remote Pilot Card are authorized to operate Ai on agency fires.


  1. Current, OAS-30U or FS5700-20B, Remote Pilot Card for the designated make and model of UAS used for the aerial ignition payload.
    1. Or Associated Cooperator Letter.
  2. S-373 UAS Incident Operations.
  3. Qualified as a UASP (NWCG).
  4. Attend IFUASS Approved UAS Aerial Ignition Training.
  5. Complete Extended/Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight training.
  6. The Trainee must participate in UAS Aerial Ignition operations with a fully qualified UAS Aerial Ignition pilot.
    1. All evaluation or inspection flights must be conducted under the supervision of the fully qualified UAS Aerial Ignition pilot who is designated as a UAS Evaluator or Inspector and identified as such on the UAS Master qualification list (Master Link).
    2. UAS Ai Mission evaluation forms must be completed by the UAS Evaluator or Inspector and discussed with the Trainee (Interagency UAS Ai).
    3. When the Trainee is ready for a final Ai evaluation a UAS Inspector or designee will complete the final UAS Ai Mission evaluation form and recommend the Trainee become fully qualified.
      1. Upon successful completion of a final Ai flight evaluation the UAS Inspector will email all UAS Ai Mission evaluation forms to:
        1. DOI – and (please cc both),
        2. FS – Regional UAS Specialist,
        3. The FS National UAS Aerial Ignition Specialist will be cc’d on all final flight evaluations.

UAS Aerial Ignition Currency

Aerial Ignition Remote Pilots are required to fly the aerial ignition payload for a minimum of three (3) hours of operational missions within the calendar year, or the interval specified on their Interagency Remote Pilot Card. Remote Pilots failing to meet this requirement shall fly under the supervision of a carded and current Ai Remote Pilot and perform the flight maneuvers and emergency procedures for that aircraft and payload to regain currency.

UAS Aerial Ignition Roles and Responsibilities

The following three roles have been identified to ensure effective Interagency UAS training:

  • UAS Inspector
  • UAS Instructor ["fully qualified" by Interagency Aviation Training (IAT) definition]
  • UAS Flight Evaluator

All Inspectors, Instructors and Flight Evaluators will be identified on an Interagency/Contract UAS Master Instructor List.  The Master Instructor list, including each positions requirements can be found in Interagency Aviation Training Guide.





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