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Overcoming redwoods and mixed terrain, WingtraOne offers a new level of insight into California fire damage assessment

In 2020, California experienced some of the worst wildfires in its history. One of these fires, “the CZU lightning complex,” started in mid-August with a thunderstorm that produced 11,000 lightning strikes causing fires that merged into one overwhelming blaze. Massive areas were evacuated and it was contained in five weeks, but only after destroying thousands of acres. Local authorities who were using multirotors to assess damages upgraded to a WingtraOne to assess the worst-hit areas of this particular fire.

“Getting the bigger, detailed picture of what you are dealing with not only helps search and rescue and damage assessment, but it also helps us see immediately what’s destroyed and what hazards need to be taken care of before we let people back into the area,” said John Cornell, assistant to the chief of police at the City of Lafayette Police Department.

The Lafayette Police Department worked as part of an interagency task force and in partnership with GeoAcuity, a geospatial consulting firm, to produce a public-facing portal for stakeholders to see what the damage was to their properties and neighborhoods. 

Industry
Emergency management
Countries
USA
Use case
An inter-agency task force upgrades to WingtraOne to map large forested and residential areas destroyed by a major California wildfire complex.
Challenges
Undulating terrain, high and thick redwood forest tree stands, a need for fast and clear mapping of a wide area to bring visibility and speed recovery efforts

I’ve seen about half a dozen GoFundMe website fundraisers that have our maps associated with them. WingtraOne drone data is important to a range of people, from the public agencies involved to the residents who are desperate for information.

Dr. Greg Crutisinger
Director of Applied Research at GeoAcuity 

Overcoming massive redwoods and mixed terrain

Because the fire swept over such a vast area, police teams first did a quick walk-through to note the level of destruction across the disaster zone. The heavily damaged areas—featuring entire streets where all homes and structures were lost—became the target of aerial damage assessment by drone survey teams. Wingtra flew a support specialist to train Lafayette police to fly WingtraOne with its QX1 payload over massive redwoods and through undulating terrain. In a day of 4 flights, they covered a total of over 1500 acres (600 ha) of damage.

“Redwoods are some of the biggest trees in the world, and there aren’t a whole lot of areas to launch from in a disaster area like this,” Cornell said. “You can’t just go onto somebody’s property and launch on top of their burned-out house. There are also a lot of crews working—tree crews, power crews and more. So we needed to be as safe as possible and be able to predict precisely where the drone would land.”

With VTOL and its custom elevation terrain following feature, WingtraOne overcame the challenges of this complex situation. And because the QX1 payload captures the most area possible in this payload class, it worked well to cover a massive amount of ground fast while offering high resolution and a seamless product. 

If you look at the area that was mapped with the WingtraOne compared to the rest that was mapped with different copters, the data availed in a nice, cohesive map that all blended together, rather than patchworks of little maps that look like a puzzle. This made for a much better data product in the end.

Dr. Greg Crutsinger
Director of Applied Research at GeoAcuity 

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This video tutorial explains the outputs to the general public and invites people to explore the CZU Complex outputs that WingtraOne enabled. 

“Stepping up” fire damage assessment with WingtraOne

As wildfires become more common and more devastating in California and worldwide due to climate change, drones emerge as the only way to keep pace with damage assessment and clear, precise information sharing.

“With drones, you get a view that you can’t get from a satellite because it’s obscured,” Crutisinger said. “Oftentimes, manned aircraft aren’t allowed in the area because it’s locked down for fire suppression, and drones can fly even when it’s too smokey for manned aircraft. Even though they are a smaller scale, they’re the right tool for the job in this case.”

 

As governments explore the technology available, VTOL stands out as the future of this kind of surveying. In the case of these California fires, where the drone needs to lift off and land through tall, narrow corridors, multirotors use a lot of battery just clearing tree stands.

“With a Phantom, we can map 50 to 75 acres (20 to 30 ha) on a battery, but when you’re talking about an area spanning tens of thousands of acres, it’s really limited even though we have a dozen teams flying them at a time,” Crutsiger said, adding that traditional fixed-wings are limited by their landings, yet they still need a solution that can cover a large area and follow terrain without requiring a “football field and a half” to land. 

WingtraOne is more of an advanced vehicle. A lot of these teams are used to DJI. We’re stepping it up a bit in terms of technology, but I think with a little bit of practice it’s still a simple, easy-to-use tablet-based system that’s fast to set up and can get us three to five times the coverage in the same amount of time.

Dr. Greg Crutsinger
Director of Applied Research at GeoAcuity 

Making a real impact on people’s lives

Beyond sensational news footage, the taskforce chose WingtraOne to capture a whole area in a matter of a few days, demonstrating that drones can be powerful tools that allow people to search for their address on a digital map and get updated information, fast.

“I think in an industry that’s full of a lot of hype like the drone industry is, my biggest concern is showing value-add, and consideration for the fact that this is really impactful for the people and their families,” Crutsinger said. “It’s also about being sensitive to the loss people are going through while showing thought leadership in terms of how we introduce new solutions like WingtraOne, package drone data and visualize it effectively.”

In this case, the data that is assembled is a form of support for victims of the fire—offering them the information they need, the data their insurance companies need, and, in some cases, the information they need to prove damage to raise funds. “We’re going in for a purpose that we do every day. That’s to be there when people are going through a disaster,” Cornell said. 

People are going through quite literally the worst time in their life. We’re going to capture a view of the area, and we’re going to get it done with respect to privacy, making sure we ensure the safety of all involved. WingtraOne has played a key role on this project.

John Cornell
City of Lafayette Police Department 

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