Ground-breaking work: Unmanned fire-fighting vehicles and the future of wildfire suppression

 On December 5, at Griffiss International Airport in New York State, Lockheed Martin and Kaman demonstrated the latest in unmanned fire-fighting vehicles. The K-MAX helicopter had already proved itself by supporting troops in Afghanistan, and the two companies demonstrated how the technology can be applied to other missions, such as fire-fighting. Here, International Fire Buyer speak to Dan Spoor, VP of Aviation and Unmanned Systems at Lockheed Martin, and Greg Steiner, President of Kaman’s Aerospace Group, about the K-MAX helicopter and the advantages it can bring to Fire Departments.

Dan Spoor: “This is some ground-breaking work with our partners at Kaman that demonstrates our ability to use unmanned aircraft to support fire-fighting and other related missions. You may be aware that the same platform was used for 33 months in Afghanistan, which concluded earlier in 2014 after supporting about 2000 missions and transporting over four and a half million tonnes of cargo.

“On the backdrop of that success, there was an effort underway to look at other civil applications to utilise that capability. We held a meeting with the Department of Interior to look at the possibility of using K-MAX for fire-fighting; with the help of our partners at Kaman, the Department of the Interior and the team here at Lockheed, we developed some test scenarios and held a demonstration on November 5. We hosted the demos at one of the six sites that have been designated by the FAA to be able to support the use of unmanned aircraft. This one was at Griffiss International Airport in Upstate New York.

“The alignment of proven military aircraft from Afghanistan combined with the DoI’s need for a new mission and the site from the FAA, provided us with a very clear opportunity to demonstrate its capability. We had, going into the demo, two aircraft to support it. One was a five-pound quad copter, called Indago, which had an electro-optic gimbal on it. We put this in to essentially simulate what a ground fire-fighter would use to get a situational awareness to deploy it and fly it about 200-300 feet above the ground to detect fire and where there was a threat, and then providing information coming off the Indago, such as a geo-reference of the fire situation, to a ground controller. At this point, the ground controller can dispatch the K-MAX aircraft.

“We did eight different scenarios that were all guided to us by our customer about what they would like to see to support the future use of aircraft like this in fire-fighting applications. Some of those included things like autonomously getting the K-MAX to fly over and retrieve water from a pond that was on the other side of the airfield, bringing it back using the geo-reference location of the fire and then dropping about 500 gallons of water on the fire accurately. We also demonstrated the abilities of something called line-building – sequentially dropping water in front of the fire to create a fire break.

“Another interesting thing we demonstrated was the ability of the K-MAX to take a helibasket and bring in an ATV (all-terrain vehicle). This showed the ability of an unmanned aircraft to hover with the helibasket while the fire-fighters on the ground go and retrieve the ATV to use it in their fire-fighting efforts.

“One of the features we demonstrated was the amount of water that can be dropped from a UAV in a certain amount of time. We dropped 24,000 lb – about 3,000 gallons – of water in an hour. We were very impressed with the abilities of the aircraft to be able to deal with this type of mission, and had some very productive conversations with the hundred or so people and organisations who attended – from the Forestry Department, the Department of Interior, service providers and local Fire and Police Departments. Overall, it really showed some of the many applications for the K-MAX aircraft.”

Greg Steiner: “As Dan mentioned, the unmanned record in Afghanistan is very impressive. It started as a six-month demo and became a 33-month deployment. That consisted of about 2,000 sorties and four-and-a-half-million ponds of cargo moved. That equated to a superb dispatch rate of about 94%, and only 1.4 maintenance man hours per flight – in an environment like Afghanistan, that’s an impressive record of maintainability. Most importantly, from our standpoint, it meant we could take convoys off the road and keep soldiers out of harm’s way.

“As we switch outside of Afghanistan, we can talk about this aircraft’s capability as a multi-mission, multi-role aircraft. We have seen the aircraft fulfilling the role of a cargo support vehicle in Afghanistan. The manned version has been used in construction, logging, humanitarian and disaster relief and, of course, fire-fighting. The fire-fighting missions have a long history, going back to the manned aircraft.

“The unmanned version builds on this space, offering extra levels of versatility, flexibility and mission extension. For instance, the aircraft can be flown as a manned aircraft during the day and then unmanned during the night or in bad weather to support 24-hour, all-weather fire-fighting operations. It can fight fires directly as well as supporting ground-based crews by supplying food, water, medical supplies and equipment across four locations in one sortie. It can even perform rescues or extractions if required. There is so much potential for the aircraft – we’re really proud of our partnership with Lockheed Martin and look forward to working with them on deployments worldwide.”

To find out more, we asked Greg and Dan some additional questions about the K-MAX.

How is the aircraft controlled?
How do you go about flying it?

DS: The aircraft has the capability to operate unmanned via a ground controller providing the navigational movements for the aircraft. It also has the option of flying autonomously. We flew both types of missions at the demonstration, and we showed the capability of autonomously flying a route where we would go over a pond, dip down and hover to gather water, come back up and autonomously fly over and drop the water on the fire that was geo-referenced when the aircraft was launched. The aircraft had an electro-optic infrared sensor on it, and it also had the ability to have high-bandwidth communications with the ground operator. We were also demonstrating a scenario where the aircraft can be hand-controlled by a ground operator. It can be done either way.

Did the Afghanistan missions involve one K-MAX or a fleet of them?

DS: There were two aircraft for 90% of the missions, but then one of the aircraft was involved in an incident with a crosswind in the final year. The software wasn’t designed to accommodate for such a wind, and has been subsequently adjusted. We’re in the process of repairing that second aircraft.

It’s a very impressive piece of kit.

DS: What’s especially interesting about this application is that the aircraft has demonstrated 33 months in a really hazardous environment in Afghanistan. We can bring it back and put it into a scenario where in the past there has only ever been manned air support. Now you can have the discussion about unmanned and optionally manned aircraft as well.

Do you need to have someone at either end of the aircraft’s route to guide it to where it needs to go? In a fire-fighting scenario, where would the operators be positioned?

GS: When we were in Afghanistan it was the operational concept that the Marine Corps asked us to follow. When we got to a foreign location to place the cargo we needed to communicate back before releasing the cargo. The ability was clearly there and some operations we completed autonomously because the cargo hook has sensors on it that determine when the load is off pressure. This means that it is not essential to have a crew member at the foreign location to put precision delivery.

In regards to fire-fighting, we would anticipate that the ground operator who is supporting the aircraft would probably be relocated in the same command centre where command operations take place. As the aircraft operates with beyond line of site, it could be remote.
Have you programmed the software to deal with the various wind conditions faced during a fire?

DS: I think part of what we’ll go through in the next series of demonstrations with the Department of Interior, will focus on a more extensive list of controlled fires. We’ll go in and take advantage and further refine anything we need to in regards to these conditions.

What is the timeline for this actually being deployed?

DS: There has been interest from the Department of Interior. The asked us to get ready to introduce some of this in 2015.

Given the wildfires that we had this past summer, were there specific things that the Department of Interior wanted you to address that were based on their experiences with wildfires over the past few years?

DS: As we were going into demonstrations, the Department of Interior guided us to make sure that what we were demonstrating was going to give them enough understanding of the capabilities. Among the things we discussed was the possibility of being able to deal with larger fires than we have so far demonstrated.

Another area that they focussed on was the eight-hour period within which they fight most fires and they needed an opportunity to double or triple that. The Department was thinking about this in terms of an optionally piloted vehicle, which could fly manned for eight hours and then another eight to 16 hours unmanned.

They also liked when we demonstrated the capabilities of essentially what the K-MAX was doing in Afghanistan – transporting supplies, but this time for fire-fighters. We proved that the aircraft was able to do it with precision, and demonstrated its ability to re-plan a flight while the aircraft is in motion. While it is undertaking one of the test scenarios, we told it to go to a different location while in-flight.

Will you need to get some special regulations from the FAA to be able to use the K-MAX?

DS: Currently the understanding from discussions with the various Government departments is that the FAA designates the airspace in the vicinity of the fire as restricted airspace. What we would be doing with the departments is understanding, as they go into the wildfire season next year, what type of authorisation certificate would be required for K-MAX in what is currently restricted airspace, as well as designate the source of water as restricted airspace. There will be heavy FAA involvement, as well as help from the Departments of Forestry and the Interior.

How long can the K-MAX fly between fuelling?

GS: A lot of it depends on the configuration, but two and a half to three hours is a typical mission length.

If you were using the K-MAX in a fire-fighting scenario, and there were multiple (manned and unmanned) vehicles in the sky, how to you prevent collisions?

GS: It’s highly unlikely that you would have a mix of manned and unmanned vehicles in the sky at any one time. As we’ve said, one of the main advantages of the aircraft is that we can use the manned version during the day and then seamlessly transfer to unmanned at night. When the manned aircraft go down, the unmanned ones can go up. The aircraft themselves don’t have anti-avoidance technology, but there is always the air traffic control radar system.

Have you had any interest from overseas markets?

DS: Not currently, no. We’d love to see it change in the future though!

GS: We’ve definitely had some enquiries, but they’re not nearly as far along as the domestic ones.

What other applications can you see the technology being used in?

DS: The manned version is already doing things like construction – logging and so on – as well as humanitarian work. We see that as just as applicable, if not more so, for the unmanned version. In terms of disaster relief, in areas where it may be difficult or dangerous to put a manned pilot or ground crew in the area, it may be easier to put an unmanned aircraft there to assist with detection, extraction and so on. The same markets that we see for the manned version, we can extend and maybe do things we couldn’t in the past with the unmanned one. /

Subscribe to our newsletter

Don't miss new updates on your email
Scroll to Top