WSU Students Build a Firefighting UAV

In response to events like the tragic June 30 Yarnell, Ariz. wildfire which claimed the life of 19 firefighters, awareness of the need for improved communications in wilderness firefighting scenarios has been raised.  The USTAR-supported Utah Center for Applied Innovation and Design has developed a new communications platform they hope will prevent a similar situation from happening again.


Firefighters depend on communication with ground control to have a clear vision of where the fire is moving. In response to this need, Weber State University’s UCAID has partnered with Utah Valley University’s (UVU) aviation science department to design an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Quadcopter for command and control during wild fires.

UVU originally won the contract, and partnered with Weber State University’s UCAID for more efficient research and development of the technology. Paul Hayes, project director for UCAID, says this UAV has the potential to revolutionize firefighting by providing a cheap and safe means for observing fires.

Hayes said he and his team approached UVU to assist with the project because the university features an aviation school and fire and rescue academy. The partnership began a year ago when UCAID began working on a Mountain West UAS proposal.

“UVU does fire and rescue training and has an aviation school, and we build hardware here at UCAID,” said Hayes. “We thought it would make a perfect, dynamic synergy because we can design equipment that they can use in fire rescue.”

Deep ravines found in the Rocky Mountains render FM radio communications and real time fire intelligence unreliable, increasing the risk to the fire fighters on the ground. UCAID has developed a UAV Quadcopter solution, which would be stable in crosswinds, carry an FM repeater to relay signals down into ravines and have a video/thermal camera that tracks fire location.

The traditional technical barrier to electrically powered UAV platforms is their limited battery life, generally 30 minutes.  Alex Hansen and Waynedon Veater, seniors in the department of electronics engineering, helped develop a novel solution.  As work study interns at UCAID, Hansen and Veater have developed a tethered power cable system, which will allow the UAV to stay in the air up to 8 hours at a time.  

“It was challenging to make the tether system light, yet powerful enough to carry the instrument payload,” said Hansen. “We were able to engineer a solution that works for the firefighters and that’s what has made this project fulfilling.”

Through the UCAID work-study program, Hansen and Veater were able work on a project with real world applications.

Veater sums up his experience, “It’s been great to apply my classroom learning to a project that will make a real impact”.

UCAID is a partnership between Weber State University and USTAR.  Please visit for more information.

(Pictured above) Alex Hansen and Paul Hayes demonstrate the video camera capabilities of the UCAID UAV Quadcopter.  This is a screenshot of the real-time video feed of the Quadcopter hovering in the UVU hangar in Orem, UT on December 13th, 2013.

(Pictured above) The UCAID Quadcopter sits on its powered tether base, which improves its time aloft from 30 minutes to 8 hours.  This enables it to be used in command and control for firefighting.