ALAMOSA — Alamosa resident and Sargent High School graduate Leighton Burt is part of drone research that could make a difference in managing fires like the Spring Fire that devastated so much of the eastern San Luis Valley this summer.
Now a student at Montana State University, Leighton was back in the Valley last week participating in the ISARRA (International Society for Atmospheric Research using Remotely Piloted Aircraft) Flight Week, which provided the opportunity to conduct research-related unmanned aerial systems flights in the Valley following the ISARRA annual meeting in Boulder. About 100 students and professionals participated in Flight Week, with Leach Field in Center serving as a base of operations.
Leighton was involved in a three-year internship involving remote sensing packages attached to drones that can provide valuable information for firefighting efforts.
Leighton credits science fairs for this and many other opportunities. “Without it I wouldn’t have had this opportunity,” he said.
Leighton participated in eight years of science fair at Sargent, which “had a lot of good resources for science fair, and I was able to thrive” and advanced to the state science fair seven of those eight years. He has also attended the international science fair and is grateful for the opportunities his science fair participation has provided.
In his final year in high school (and science fair) he was working on an avalanche rescue drone project that led to an internship through the United States Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.) He has been working with the NOAA-sponsored Cooperative Institute For Research And Environmental Science lab through CU Boulder.
“We are building two sensor packages,” Leighton explained. He is most involved in a remote sensing package that uses an infrared camera to shoot photos every second in a fire area, and the images are then compiled to provide a heat map that firefighters can use in managing the fire.
“The eventual goal of this project is to have a drone providing digital information for emergency services as well as to help us understand how fire behaves,” Leighton said.
The team is calling the project NightFOX (Fire Observations eXperiment) because the plan is to fly the drones at night to avoid interference with aerial firefighting efforts, which primarily occur during daytime hours. (Leighton pointed out that because of the risk of crashes, drones flying during firefighting efforts can ground aerial firefighting operations, which occurred once during the Spring Fire when aerial operations had to be temporarily suspended because someone was flying a drone in the area of the fire.)
The second package utilizes In Situ Sensing to determine the composition of particulates in a specific fire and provide other information.
“We have assembled preliminary prototypes of both and done a little bit of testing on both models to see what preliminary issues need to addressed,” Leighton said.
The packages have been attached to fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles with 10-foot wingspans and the capability of holding five pounds of sensors in the drone nose cone. The drones used in this project are manufactured by Black Swift Technologies out of Boulder, and Black Swift representatives have been in the Valley this week for Flight Week.
Leighton said it was good to come back to the Valley this week and participate in such important research that will provide data to help firefighters.
The 2017 Sargent High School graduate will be a sophomore at Montana State University this fall. He was studying electrical engineering and although he now doesn’t believe that is his niche, he plans to still pursue something in a design-oriented and scientific field.
In his second summer of the three-year internship, he will not be returning for the third summer because he will be staying in Montana to establish residency to save tuition and because “I love Bozeman.”
He said he chose Montana State because “it’s a nature junkie’s paradise” with great skiing nearby, and it offers many good course offerings at an affordable cost.