Terry Fogarty from Kaman and Jon McMillen of Lockheed Martin speak to Fire Buyer about the potential of widely used autonomous vehicles throughout the fire sector
Jon McMillen, Lockheed Martin Business Development, Unmanned Helicopter Programmes
Terry Fogarty, Kaman Business Development, K-MAX Helicopter Programmes
Q: Could you give us a short introduction to Lockheed Martin and Kaman? When did the focus of your organisations move away from military to civilian applications?
JM: Kaman and Lockheed joined forces in 2007. We initially looked at the military need to get convoys off the road and how we could help to do that. We found a novel way of taking a very reliable Kaman K1200 aircraft and upgrading it with an unmanned system so that the military could take logistics convoys off the road. We constantly asked the questions ‘Is this really something that is possible? And if so, how far can we take it?’ As we looked closely at the technology and as we witnessed it operating in Afghanistan and achieving great things, we began to realise there are many uses for this technology
We started to look at other industries and asking where else the technology could have an impact. We looked at commercial applications where the K1200 was used, such as fire-fighting, construction and various other missions. Many of these missions have their own limitations – when can a pilot fly, and when can’t a pilot fly, along with additional pilot constraints. One way to address such limitations is to remove the pilots and replace them with an unmanned system that can see 24/7. This is when you really open the aperture of where you could use this technology.
TF: The unmanned K-MAX is a most effective tool and we have been contacted by a number of different people who want to use it. A big area that came up was unmanned fire-fighting. This tool could be used to fight fires at night when the piloted aircraft do not fly, for example. Potentially there are systems you could put on the aircraft to make it a very useful tool in the fight against fires. When you fight a fire you are in FAA Restricted Airspace, which keeps UAVs from flying in the same airspace as manned aircrafts. Fighting forest fires is a logical next step for commercialising the unmanned K-MAX.
Q: What would be the advantages of fire-fighting with UAVs?
TF: First you could fly at night so you’d get almost double the amount of coverage when dumping water or retardant onto a fire. This would be the main advantage. Instead of sending in people, you could use a commercial off-the-shelf type of EO/IR camera to help you put the water where you want and to fly all through the night. Then when the day breaks and the manned helicopters come on board the UAV would sit down during the daylight hours.
JM: One of the problems you have with fire is trying to identify where the hot spots are. Even in daylight hours, sometimes identifying flames and hotspots can be very difficult. But where this type of system could be used is for missions that can be dangerous, such as fire-fighting. Really our main goal is to automate and incorporate autonomy into aircraft to carry out missions more effectively. We’re really changing the end use and augmenting a human’s day to day applicant or job function. That’s where we see this as more of a tool that can really help people providing safety operations in dangerous cases such as fire-fighting.
Q: Do you have any UAVs in service with Fire Departments?
JM: We don’t have any unmanned K-MAXs conducting fire-fighting operations; however, the manned K-1200 is actively used in the fire-fighting and construction industries.
TF: We don’t have any unmanned aircraft being used to suppress fires. Our manned K-MAX helicopters are directly involved with fighting fires.
Q: Historically, unmanned vehicles in a military sense have had some negative connotations. How do you think Lockheed Martin counteracts that image and shows them in a positive light?
JM: If you look at what this particular UAV does, it’s a different paradigm from what you see a lot of other UAVs used for. Many others are used for ISR purposes, for surveillance, and for areas where there’s more angst against the mission. But what we’re actually trying to create and address here is an enhancement to an autopilot system that’s on board. This is an enhancement for a civil application and with applicability across multiple variants of air vehicles. You can start to look at missions with the right sensor suite on board, and you could actually identify right where the hotspots are and place your retardant there.
Q: Could you tell us about your development process and how you would adapt technology from a military to a fire application? Which applications could you make to other similar industries such as search and rescue or disaster recovery?
JM: A lot of our developments have been a joint investment between Lockheed and Kaman. It was something we looked at together, questioning where things could be taken. The difference you would see in a military variant as opposed to a commercial variant is not that significant. A lot of those same functions, capabilities and utility are there – it’s just about what type of mission you put into place and how you conduct it that varies. There are not a lot of changes that need to happen.
Of course we need to find ways to integrate, to fly around or through the airspace. This is an emerging area that we have to work through and with. There are some challenges we’ll have to address in order to operate in certain industries – such as FAA Airspace Restrictions in the fire industry. But overall, there are really not a lot of differences.
TF: I’d definitely agree with that assessment. The aircraft, the ground control station and the data links are all now tailored towards a military environment. They may need to be adjusted slightly but will essentially perform the same functions in any industry.
Q: Is there any other technology such as UAVs that could be adapted for the fire industry or similar areas?
TF: I think we’re right at the tip of the iceberg. When you look at different companies such as Lockheed that have an unmanned vehicle, you find that they would be able to help fire-fighters as they go through the terrain that’s typical in a fire. For instance, smaller wings provide a snapshot of what’s going on, or a K-MAX can actually dump the water. There are a lot of systems out there that could aid fire-fighting right now. It’s more a matter of breaking the mould of how we do things now and changing the thought process to how we can do things in a year, three years, five years down the road. People have to start thinking about that and I think the answers will be quite amazing to the average citizen.
Q: Do you think that autonomy and unmanned vehicles of any kind will be an emerging trend in the fire industry in years to come?
TF: I think so. Industry leaders will be able to determine how to take these tools and how to best use them for each particular mission. There are tools today that could be used for structure fires such as crawling type UAVs that weigh a pound or two, and for forest fires there’s aviation and ground vehicles that would be able to go over very rough terrain. Fire-fighting has a real need for unmanned systems, to help them in such dangerous environments – whether it’s fire or HAZMAT.
Q: Going forward do you think that the UAV market will be skewed more away from military to these industries?
TF: I don’t think that UAVs and unmanned systems will be lessened in the military but rather more accepted in the commercial world – once the industry fully understands the benefits of unmanned vehicles, not just air vehicles but all unmanned vehicles. As we started this conversation we talked about the negative publicity associated with the term ‘drones’. One of the things the industry has to do is to figure out a better word that isn’t as cumbersome as unmanned aerial system or unmanned ground system or a term with negative connotations such as ‘drone’. We need to begin to educate the average person and help them realise how these different autonomous systems could help them in everyday life or in the emergency response sector.
JM: Terry makes a good point about education. One thing we noticed when we were originally deployed with the Marines was that we went to Afghanistan as part of an assessment, they wanted to see if the technology was feasible, as there was some scepticism how Marines and other personnel would operate around this new unmanned equipment that they’ve never been around before. In this instance it was a full sized unmanned helicopter and we had a lot of Marines who were sceptical about how the interaction would work and how much they would actually benefit from this technology. However, once they were able to work with the technology for a while they became very familiar with it and now it’s something that they request to use all the time without thinking twice about it. If you look at that from a commercial perspective, this really is the tip of the iceberg as Terry said. People will look at autonomous solutions: At the start they may not be 100% comfortable because they’ve never used it before, then as trust builds with the systems they employ, as they become more familiar with these systems, you’ll see an adaptation of these sorts of capabilities, air or ground and for various different missions. As this adoption comes into play you will see proliferation. One system or multiple systems; there’s a large piece of autonomy that you’ll start to see growing in the commercial sector.
Q: Would you say that once the public becomes more familiar with these systems, being used to fight wildfires for example, that the image of the systems will begin to change?
TF: I think that will be key to it. People could go to YouTube for example to see an unmanned aircraft putting out fires or an unmanned ground vehicle going to areas that people just could not – and to do good things. This type of publicity and education will change the perception of the public of unmanned aircraft as killers.
JM: One example is the aircraft of 20 years ago and the technology shift from visual flight rules, instrument flight rules, to the point that most aircraft now use automatic takeoff and landing systems. If you were to ask people their opinion when those systems were first put out there, you would have seen a lot of scepticism at the time. However, these systems are now routinely proven to work and today you wouldn’t think of getting onto a large airliner that didn’t have automatic take-off and landing or an autopilot system. It’s something that we’ve become accustomed to and now trust. That same paradigm will happen with autonomous systems like unmanned aircraft and unmanned helicopters for fire-fighting. The first few that are out there will come under intense scrutiny but as the benefits prove themselves, and the duration of wildfires could be reduced for example. A few years down the road there won’t be a question as to why these systems are used but an acceptance that this is the appropriate technology to carry out this particular mission.