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NASA backs drone company that tracks wildfires

Veronica Brezina

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An image of drones capturing data from a wildfire. Photo: Improving Aviation.

Tracking and predicting raging wildfires can be difficult for emergency responders due to many factors, but a Tampa company that is backed by federal agencies is doing just that with its drone technology. 

Improving Aviation, which is a graduate of Tampa Bay Wave’s 2021 TechWomen Rising Accelerator, is the recipient of the NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant. This new funding will be used to develop SkyTL, the first portable air traffic management system to combat wildfires and keep emergency responders and others safe.

With SkyTL, Improving Aviation would use drones to collect atmospheric measurements on the canopy of the wildfire and provide a real-time fire spread prediction model.

“The challenge right now is there isn’t great communication between the drones and emergency responders due to limited service in remote areas and they don’t have access to real-time data, and we want to change that,” said founder Rocio Frej Vitalle, who has been in the air traffic management field for over a decade. 

Vitalle created Improving Aviation in 2020 and prominently works with federal and state governments, including the Department of Transportation. 

The minority-owned business, which consists of a three-person team and contractors, is dedicated to developing aviation solutions and technologies to improve global sustainability and combat natural disasters and climate change. 

The Phase 1 grant, roughly $150,000, will also allow Improving Aviation to seek a Phase 2 grant. 

The grants are dedicated to early-stage funding for research and development and can range up to $1 million during the startup’s first three years. Additionally, the qualified startups can receive nearly $3 million or more through NASA’s Post Phase II opportunities. 

Through the program, NASA does not take any equity and the selected companies can work with NASA experts. 

Improving Aviation also received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop WindTL under an SBIR Phase I, which works in sync with SkyTL. 

The company is partnering with the College of Engineering and the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for the software to provide emergency responders with a common situational awareness map of the position of all vehicles, air and ground, manned and unmanned, and emergency responders, enabling notifications and message exchanges, according to its website.  

Vitalle said they will be developing the drone technology in-house and will be testing it in conjunction with prescribed fires in Tallahassee. 

Improving Aviation is also working with drone company Bluenest on a separate drone delivery testing at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus.

The overall goal is to deliver packages successfully from one locker to another and this locker delivery could be used in student housing. 

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