Within the aerial firefighting and air medical communities, the cloud has improved communication between what were once disparate groups and functions – allowing asset managers to make better and more informed decisions by facilitating faster collection, processing and analysis of data.
Positive feedback loops
Cloud computing has the potential to revolutionize aerial asset management by providing a way to store, access and analyze data from a variety of sources in real-time. “This can help organizations deploy assets more efficiently, track the location and maintenance of their aircraft, and monitor
the performance of pilots and crew,” commented Iain Ronis, Director of Product Management at SKYTRAC – the Canadian aerospace company at the forefront of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite communications and intelligent connectivity.
Cloud-based software and services are helping pull together operators executing related but separate missions, where before their data systems were disparate and disconnected. “This can help open up the aperture on effectiveness, safety, and applying lessons learned across a wider user base than ever before, creating positive feedback loops,” said Brian Collins, CEO at Colorado-based Intterra, whose cloud-based software gives firefighting agencies a centralized visual data interface to manage emerging incidents, develop effective pre-plans, and share a common – and complete – operational picture. “They do this through the inherent advantages of cloud architectures to store, share and aggregate data. From an efficiency standpoint, asset managers can leverage real-time intelligence to pre-position assets, improve decision-making, and therefore more effectively reduce risk. They can also compare and analyze asset performance,” he explained.
Real-time asset tracking
One of the most significant applications of the cloud in asset management for aerial firefighting is the use of real-time tracking and analytics to optimize aircraft deployment. Ronis spelled this out: “An organization might use cloud-based analytics to determine the most efficient routes for aircraft based on current weather conditions and the location of fires, with the use of SKYTRAC’s TrooTrax Mission. This can help organizations track aircraft more easily and ensure they are in compliance with regional regulations,” he disclosed.
Cloud services and advanced technologies are producing mountains of data, pushing the limits of what we can ingest, process and analyze
In the air medical industry, cloud connectivity is enabling virtual transport physicians to view, in real-time, patient vitals that are collected through onboard medical equipment. “This brings specialized knowledge straight to cabin,” said Ronis, “allowing virtual transport physicians to provide timely recommendations to flight nurses and paramedics. Prior to cloud-based viewing of medical data, information was transmitted through voice, and could be inefficient and prone to error – particularly in stressful conditions.”
5G improving the connectivity gap
“Cloud services and advanced technologies are producing mountains of data, pushing the limits of what we can ingest, process and analyze,” said Collins. In areas of limited connectivity where many wildfires rage, the ability to receive data and intelligence from the cloud becomes severely constrained. “As a first responder, minutes matter,” he added, “and you can’t exactly wait around for intel to download, or worse, fail to appear. Improvements in telecommunication infrastructure such as 5G are attempting to close the ‘connectivity gap’ and improve high-speed data transmission in remote areas, ultimately improving effectiveness, increasing safety and reducing cost.”
Incident Command Centers (ICC) often face communication bottlenecks when there is a reliance on typical localized, first responder radio networks – either due to congestion on limited channels, or limitations due to terrain or distance. SKYTRAC
believes that 5G promises to provide easier one-to-one and one-to-many connections, allowing incident commanders to maintain cohesive management, even if section chiefs are deployed and not located at the ICC. “It should be remembered, however, that 5G technologies are still ground-based – so to assure ICC resilience in devastated areas, satellite communications need to be a part of the comprehensive solution,” cautioned Ronis.
With SKYTRAC, operators can achieve both cellular and satellite connectivity, ensuring effective asset management. When cellular connectivity is available, operators benefit from a lower-cost service. Likewise, in rural regions without cellular coverage, they can dynamically switch to satellite connectivity to maintain communications with assets.
Cloud-enabled multiple aerial asset management
Being ‘cloud-enabled’ is rapidly becoming a necessity for communications service providers. While the benefit is obvious for customers, the bigger advantage is the ability for these disparate services to easily and securely exchange information.
Intterra’s cloud-based intel is enabling tracking and multiple asset management in wildfire scenarios, as Intterra Board Director Jon McLaughlin explained: “When it comes to fighting larger wildfires, they will require new tools for a ‘shared situational awareness’ that Intterra provides. It is important for active intelligence from multiple integrated data services (such as satellite monitoring and geospatial data layers) to be shared across multiple platforms and communities, to bolster incident awareness and aviation coordination.”
For example, Intterra’s situational awareness tools allow for ground and air assets to share, process and disseminate intel in one common operational picture. “Ultimately, this leads to more effective asset management, improved safety and transparency as cross-discipline functions (i.e. ground vs aerial assets) can be integrated into one seamless, synchronized decision cycle,” McLaughlin said.
This view is shared by Ronis: “In the early days of aerial asset tracking, many of the host companies cooperated with data in shared environments, but this required a fair amount of effort to make the connections and interpret proprietary data formats. Today, those same providers can exchange data via industry-standard cloud protocols, and new capabilities such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) operating in a wildfire scenario on cloud-connected mesh networks to track hotspots can feed data to the scene managers for coordination of efforts.”
This is why operators are eager to seek solutions that can provide cellular and satellite connectivity – both for redundancy in emergency situations, and also for ensuring the most cost-effective method of connectivity is available, as data access may be limited in remote regions.
A stream of data
The continuing march of better and faster satellite communications, especially for helicopters and smaller fixed-wing aircraft, offers a variety of mission-critical capabilities, explained Ronis. “In the past, using radio or satellite telephones, medical crews could verbally discuss patient care with trauma doctors during transport. More ideal, is to directly send the medical data from onboard patient monitors, which provide a continual stream of data while lessening the in-flight workload of the medical crew,” he pointed out. The next improvement to this idea of putting the doctor ‘in’ the helicopter will be to stream video of the patient, something which several operators are looking to try. “The additional bandwidth of new satellite services will also provide continual monitoring and alerting about aircraft maintenance conditions to enhance operational safety,” he said.
With medical data transfer capabilities, which can be enabled through both cellular and satellite connectivity, onboard medical professionals can transmit real-time patient vitals directly to receiving centers or virtual physicians. This capability provides additional information that drastically improves the odds of survival during golden hour. “In remote regions, the need for satellite connectivity is crucial,” commented Ronis. “In urban regions or areas with cellular connectivity, operators can use this to ensure successful transmission of medical data,” he said.
Military and civil ‘dual-use’ technologies
“While the military is often quick to adopt the latest and greatest, the resulting solutions rarely carry over to applications on the civilian side – in part because military communications require highly specialized security compartmentalization,” commented Ronis.
The continuing march of better and faster satellite communications ... offers a variety of mission-critical capabilities
Collins observed that while the military leads the civilian community in the development and production of physical, complex aviation assets, today we are seeing a huge trend in not just ‘dual-use’ technologies, but ‘direct-use’ as well. He explained: “For example, military capabilities such as infrared and full motion video were ready for mass use for firefighting because of the investment from the military. However, today we are seeing rapid prototyping and implementation of systems – shortwave infrared sensors, wide area surveillance, artificial intelligence/machine learning, 5G and satellite cellular communications that is happening quickly and affordably, due to the speed within which the commercial and civil community can make investment and deployment decisions.” He continued: “We like to think Intterra has borrowed the best ideas from both worlds to provide an effective (and cost-friendly) solution for aerial operators.”
Ronis described how, in many countries, aerial firefighting benefits from a certain amount of government oversight, which mandates adoption of technology to maintain a common level of safety. “Surprisingly, in the air medical industry – especially in the US – it is up to the various fleet operators to investigate and deploy technology,” he revealed. “In this industry, along with offshore oil and gas, adoption of satellite and other connectivity solutions for reasons beyond simple tracking is becoming a key competitive differentiator.” These solutions, properly integrated with a fleet safety management system, provide flight operations with quality assurance and operational efficiency programs, while improving overall safety.
A silver lining
The cloud has the potential to enable firefighting and EMS operators to reimagine the management of aerial assets, harnessing digital data and empowering them with information received back from the fireline or an air ambulance quicker than ever before. The resulting benefits of this transformation in asset management will keep firefighters safer, better protect property from the ravages of wildfires, improve the survival odds of patients and lessen the in-flight workload of medical crews. It is safe to say that, in this instance, every cloud has a silver lining.