UAS Thermal Infrared Spectroscopy for Active WildFire Monitoring


This project will develop a thermal infrared (TIR) imaging system with high spatial and temporal resolution that is small enough to be flown on an unmanned aircraft system (UAS). Current satellite-based TIR imagers have limited spatial resolution and long revisit times, but an affordable, UAS-mounted spectrometer could provide near real-time insights to wildland fire commanders regarding thermal and gas dynamics, burn intensity, and rate of spread. This instrument plans to achieve sub-meter spatial and sub-second temporal resolutions, enabling the characterization of thermal convection gas emissions in 3D.

Science Area

Active wildfires evolve quickly and have proven difficult to model. Multispectral TIR data of an entire wildfire can aid in active fire (hot spot) detection, fire movement over time, and plume characterization, all of which are vital for fire managers. High temporal resolution TIR data will improve the characterization of highly dynamic fire fronts, where temperatures fluctuate at 100s°C per second. The high resolution TIR data will advance the derivation of critical gas flux rates in 3D (i.e., SO2, CO2, and NH3) to identify fire burn efficiencies and impact on the environment and air quality.


This project will improve the performance, reliability, and latency metrics of a similar multispectral TIR imaging system that has been successfully tested over volcanoes. A versatile small UAS (<2 kg and <20 W) is easily deployable during a wildfire event to rapidly quantify the heat and gas fluxes in 3D, and a telemetry downlink will be coupled with this system to allow the processing and distribution of data into fire management systems with low latency (<5 minutes). Results would then be directly available to wildland fire commanders to aid in evaluating current fire behavior (thermal and gases). The US Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering to test this technology.


  • Six Lepton camera modules will be integrated onto a single printed circuit board providing a lightweight, low-power consumption multispectral TIR imager tailored for active wildfires.
  • A Raspberry Pi Compute Module will increase processing power and enable onboard calibration, processing, and distribution of acquired data in near-real-time to assist fire commanders.
  • Cross-calibration for thermal and gas retrievals during prescribed burns from this imager will characterize emissions in 3D to assess air quality and environmental impacts.

Principal Investigator

James Thompson is a Research Associate in the State of Texas Advanced Resource Recovery (STARR) program and the PI of a NASA FireSense Technology project. His principal expertise focuses on developing novel remote sensing and geospatial techniques to understand the thermodynamics of terrestrial processes across spatial and temporal scales and determine the consequent societal impacts. He specializes in applying a multi-instrument approach utilizing a variety of data types to evaluate different surface characteristics and apply these to geological modeling applications. Currently, James is leading an effort developing miniature thermal infrared (TIR) imaging systems for deployment on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to improve understanding of wildfire behavior in Texas. This effort advances the derivation of critical gas flux rates in 3D (i.e., SO2, CO2, and NH3) that will help to identify wildfire burn efficiencies and the impacts of wildfires on ecosystems and air quality.