Tech Talk

• From 100 feet in the air, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge ecologist Mark Laker can find a piece of smoldering ash or a tiny spot of excess heat that could spark a wildfire.

Laker pilots two 3DR surveillance drones — one of which is equipped with heat-sensing technology — that the refuge has been using over the last year to monitor wild areas.

Recently, Laker piloted the drone over a 3.5-acre section of the refuge near Funny River Road where a hazardous fuel reduction project was taking place. As fire officials monitored small piles of burning wood and ash, Laker watched a shifting array of colours on a screen.

“As I pan around it will see the fires,” Laker explained, pointing out bright red and yellow colours on the screen.

From where he was standing, Laker could tell that one fire was still burning at 370 degrees and that an ash pile had cooled to a frosty 27 degrees.

Ash piles can sometimes be several feet thick and retain significant heat, but don’t look hot to the naked eye.

“Just because a pile’s not smoking doesn’t mean it’s not hot,” Mike Hill, assistant fire management officer, said. “So, that’s what the camera can get. That’s where a camera is better than a human.”

Without the heat-sensing drone, refuge fire officials have to check each individual pile, either with a handheld heat sensor or by testing the ashes with their hands. Hill estimated there were several hundred piles of wood and ashes needing inspection in the area. Whereas they would have to be checked individually, now Laker can sweep through the area in a matter of minutes.

• The Trump administration wants NASA out of the International Space Station by 2025, and private businesses running the place instead.

Under President Donald Trump’s 2019 proposed budget released Monday, U.S. government funding for the space station would end by 2025. The government would set aside $150 million to encourage commercial development and use future savings to aim for the moon.

Many space experts and legislators are expressing concern. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who rocketed into orbit in 1986, said “turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space” makes no sense.

Retired NASA historian and Smithsonian curator Roger Launius notes that any such move will affect all the other countries involved in the space station; Russia is a major player, as is Europe, Japan and Canada.

NASA has spent close to $100 billion on the orbiting outpost since the 1990s. The first piece was launched in 1998, and the complex was essentially completed with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

MIT astronautics professor Dava Newman, who was the deputy NASA chief under Barack Obama, called the space station “the cornerstone of space exploration today” but said the Trump administration’s proposal makes sense because it is doing long-term planning.

The president proposes shifting large chunks of money from the space station, satellites studying a warming Earth and a major space telescope toward a multi-year $10.4 billion exploration plan aimed at returning astronauts to the moon in about five or six years.


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