Colorado firefighting: research and innovation in aerial firefighting equipment
Amy Gallagher spoke to a raft of experts involved in aerial firefighting research and active service, finding out more about the latest assets and resources that Colorado is pioneering and using to extinguish fires from the air
Legislation proposed by the Governor of Colorado in February 2021 includes a budget for the next fiscal year of US$78 million in wildfire-related expenditures. To help firefighters suppress wildfires, the budget allocated about $24 million toward the purchase of a new Sikorsky S-70 Firehawk helicopter, and an additional $3.8 million to spend on annual operating costs. It takes a big budget, and even more resources, to fight the wildland fires in Colorado, a state that saw a record number of fires during the 2020-2021 fire season.
Those resources include advanced technologies available through the state legislature funding, and scientifically driven collaborations delivered by the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS), Colorado National Guard (CONG), US Army, Colorado Hoist Rescue Team (CHRT), and the Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control (CDFPC), to name just a few of the organizations. The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology and Aerial Firefighting (CoE) is one of Colorado’s largest golden nuggets, which established and supported a Colorado Wildland Fire Prediction and Decision Support System. The CoE is the first public organization of this type to purchase or contract aerial firefighting assets and resources.
Multi-mission aircraft deliver data and images
The CoE is designed to research, test, and evaluate technology, and to drive those technological advancements to transform aerial firefighting practises, improve rescue operations, and influence innovation across the public safety spectrum. “Connecting technology with public safety professionals is exactly what the CoE has accomplished,” said Garrett Seddon, CoE Unmanned Systems Project Manager.
As an innovative research entity, the CoE is an integral research and development department for the state, beginning with the successful implementation of Colorado’s own aerial firefighting fleet. “Although we set records for total acreage burned in 2020, we also put out 100 fires that no one knows about,” Seddon told AirMed&Rescue. To research and implement the technology to fight nature, two multi-mission aircraft (MMA) Pilatus PC-12 single engine turboprop aircraft were purchased.
The PC-12 is flown by lead pilot and Colorado MMA Program Manager Dave Bickerstaff of Bode Aviation. “The PC-12 aircraft include a 15-inch camera system stabilized on a turret with a 360o rotation and an 180o elevation; and the images are shared with the ground crew,” he explained. “Images are zapped via GoGo, a third-party, cloud-based WiFi system that functions above 10,000 feet from any point in Colorado, which is managed by the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System.” With just one camera, Seddon said they could find a single tree on fire, with the goal of putting it out before the fire burns acres of land.
Federal and state collaborations
Under the Department of the Interior and US Forest Service (DOI / USFS), the National Park Service (NPS) Wildland Fire Program employs firefighters, engine crews, and helitack crews, and collaborates with state crews for fire management, fire prevention, and fire suppression, said Craig Leff, DOI Deputy Director, Office of Wildland Fire (OWF). “To create a wildland fire management program that’s effective and efficient, the DOI cultivates partnerships with a wide range of federal agencies, state and local managers, tribes, and other stakeholders,” Leff told AirMed&Rescue. The core of the ‘all hands, all lands’ approach of today’s wildland fire management lies in a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy, which recognizes the importance of shared priorities on shared landscapes, he said.
“The strategy identifies three goals that anchor our holistic approach to managing wildland fire: to restore and maintain landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and improve fire response,” Leff noted. “Co-operative agreements between members of the wildland fire community allow us to share resources (people, equipment) to work more efficiently to protect people and communities.”
Information sharing is key to digital developments
As a CoE Communications and Geospatial Specialist, one of Brad Schmidt’s responsibilities is improving the capabilities of the Team Awareness Kit (TAK) app, Android TAK (ATAK). He explained more about its role: “The TAK app, on the Google Play Store, piggybacks off GPS on Android phones to help first responders track team members without relying on cellular networks. ATAK is built on an Android platform and can be integrated into an HLS phone, iPhone, Windows, internet and eventually, into virtual reality. The app has both online and offline maps, and lets users mark and share their locations, files, photos, and videos while also communicating via chat or livestream,” he said.
Ben Miller, Director of the CoE, would like to see the app on every tablet or cell phone in every pocket of every firefighter in the state of Colorado. “We’re still testing it on actual fire incidents, where we’ll look at ways to enhance situational awareness and by creating spatial awareness for firefighters,” he said, adding that the greatest challenge in adopting a new product, concept or program is changing a culture that works within situational awareness, to one that understands the power of spatial awareness.
“Our ATAK system is a geographical spatial management tool that provides resource tracking on the aircraft and the fire engines to the incident command post to assess fire suppression capability,” Miller explained. “Real time on a map, I can see the dots representing the resources I have, so I can send the closest one to the fire. Prior to this, we only had radio communications, but today we can all collaborate more efficiently in a connected environment.”
Agency collaboration and partnerships
As an operating system across the spectrum of public safety, Miller said collaboration with every agency capable of reviewing the data in real time is where ATAK is headed: “Integrating ATAK into MMA with cameras that scan the entire landscape to conduct fire detection missions and / or communicate with ground crew is also on the horizon. We’re building a bridge with other agencies to create a shared server to run the ATAK program to use as a common tool.”
Another innovative application for future growth is implementing drones. “Ideally, I envision a drone that fits in a backpack that can be deployed across all DPS locations in real time with persistent surveillance of a fire for hours,” Miller told AirMed&Rescue. The public we serve, he added, expects us to apply more tech to the problem than is available to them at Best Buy, and the CoE is working to make sure that’s the case.
CoE’s Aviation Projects Manager Dave Toelle is working to integrate a synthetic aperture radar sensor (SAR) into TAK technology in single-engine air tanker cockpits, PC-12s and helicopters, as well as into the next Star Wars movie, with helmet-mounted display (HMD) technology using a glass monocle viewfinder to stream information to the pilot. “We’re evaluating SAR utilizing the flight path’s platform to electronically simulate a large aperture to generate high-resolution remote sensing imagery,” he explained. “Once we determine the efficacy of SAR to monitor aerial wildland fires, we hope to test a low-size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C), multi-mode Ku-band radar system.”
Packaged in a weatherized pod form factor mounted on a wing, the SAR allows for an unobstructed payload bay while simultaneously installing and operating the electro optical (EO) / infrared (IR) surveillance system, said Toelle, adding: “The radar performs high resolution SAR imaging, and functions day or night, in all weather conditions, and in other low-visibility conditions such as fog or smoke. The SAR scans the earth surface by conducting repeated flights, such as the perimeter of the fire, in repeated patterns followed by creating imagery of the area,” he said. “We want to know how well the radar identified the location of the fire and where the fire is moving.”
Toelle also hopes to change attitudes from retardants to enhancers: “Water enhancers are primarily for direct attack aerial firefighting missions, while long-term retardants are primarily used for indirect attack, remaining effective even after the water in the drop evaporates.” Products in the enhancers are formulated with polymers or other thickeners, which improve the properties of water molecules, building up a protective coating and adhering to the surface of the fuels. “The long-chain molecules are like thickened concentrated water, evaporating slowly while minimizing drift during aerial application,” said Toelle. “The enhancers allow firefighters to engage the fire and begin line construction.”
Innovative fire rescue equipment
With the solid support of the robust and well-established training program with the CDFPC, a collaboration with the CHRT program and CONG Aviation was launched to offer the state of Colorado two parallel aviation services: aerial wildland firefighting and hoist rescue through CHRT, with crossovers between the two missions. The CHRT organization boasts two US Army facilities, the CONG, as well as four different rescue teams, forming a model organization where all personnel meet quarterly, strengthening its structure, said Clayton Horney, who serves as CHRT Program Manager.
“The CONG, through the CHRT, is responsible for all hoist extraction rescues in Colorado, flying an average of 27 missions each year, while saving 21 lives during 2019 alone,” explained Horney. To improve the ease and speed of hoisting, the team sourced a bag-based litter system with an anti-rotational brake that is packaged into a cube with a rescuer and lowered to the victim. Once delivered, the rescuer can unfold the bag and rapidly prepare the patient for extraction. “The dynamic hoist system decreases hovering time above a scene down to two minutes, while also decreasing passes overhead to two,” he said. Minimizing time over target, and increasing efficiency in the complex environments of high altitude and high angle, also increases the chances for survival, said Horney. Sizing the bags appropriately so they could also be used with a stokes litter provided by ground SAR teams, Horney said they’ve had a couple of seasons to practise good techniques with the stable flight bag that are now standardized.
As part of his position as Erickson’s Senior Director, Research and Product Development, Jeff Baxter evaluates the company’s firefighting resources, which includes the Erickson-manufactured Sikorsky S-64 Aircrane. “The S-64 combines the capacity of a fixed-wing tanker with the accuracy, technique and refill speed of a helicopter making it ideal for aerial firefighting,” said Baxter. With a hydraulic snorkel system, this firefighting workhorse siphons 2,650 gallons of water, a ‘big hit on a fire’, he said. “We can deploy lighter aircraft with a hover pump snorkel that fills from shallow water sources in just 30 seconds,” he added.
Baxter said the company is launching an ‘improved’ aerial water cannon to strengthen the efficiency of the hover pump snorkel. “The deployment precision water cannon represents advancements from the past 50 years of computational power for aircrew to precision steer a nozzle with exact computeriation and targeting. This level of high performance onboard the aircraft for firefighting is a first.”
Chinook CH-47F: game-changing software
CONG Chinook pilot CW3 Ryan Czarnetzki applies specific equipment and software to the firefighting capabilities of the CH-47F to effectively manage wildland fire operations. Using the ‘Tarantula Valve’ on the CH-47 with the standard Bambi bucket, Czarnetzki is able to manipulate up to 16,000lbs of water weight, while balancing aircraft weight and fuel load for a total gross weight of up to 50,00lbs.
“In the mountains, we start off with a half to ¾ of a bucket, and as we burn fuel, we take on more water,” he said. Czarnetzki’s crew opens and closes the valve to determine the exact amount of water while maximizing weight with high altitudes. Another new resource is the use of optional lengths of lines, said Czarnetzki. “The shorter lines are 50-75 feet, while longer lines are over 100 feet, allowing us to dip into water sites located in more restrictive terrain and at a much higher hover over trees,” he said.
But the real ‘game-changer’, said Czarnetzki, is the upgraded flight control software system, which provides more hovering stability. The Digital Flight Control System (DAFCS) 3.3 was integrated in June of 2020 just in time for the fall season, when Czarnetzki said the software was most useful.
“It keeps the aircraft exactly where we want it to be at higher altitudes while handling the up and down drafts and cross winds, he said. “The software also improves speed so we could dip and deliver more buckets per tank of gas.”
Fire retardants – environmentally friendly with fugitive colorants
Perimeter Solutions is a global producer of firefighting chemicals with the company’s ultra-high-visibility fluorescent pigments that light the ground with red iron oxide, making it the first fugitive chemical that disappears when exposed to sunlight. Eddie Goldberg, CEO, told AirMed&Rescue: “The retardant reacts with and alters the thermal decomposition mechanism of wildland fuels, rendering them nonflammable, depriving the fire of fuel while reducing fire intensity and the rate of flame spread. We also use it to control prescribed burns and create fire breaks.”
The retardant is produced as a concentrate and delivered as a low-viscosity liquid, then diluted with water as it is transferred to the delivery systems, ‘providing better ground visibility to improve in-field effectiveness and enhancing pilot safety is the goal’, said Goldberg.
The company’s newest fire retardant, the 100-per-cent phosphate PHOS-CHEK LCE20-Fx, is qualified by the USDA-USFS under the recently updated specification for long-term wildland firefighting for fixed-wing and single-engine air tankers, helicopter buckets and ground engines. Today’s tankers that fly faster and higher, require advanced thickeners and improved color to provide superior drop performance and accuracy, he said.
Drone-based firefighting systems
To fight the wildfires blazing in Colorado, it may seem out of the ordinary to know that a CEO with a PhD from MIT has commercialized an innovative tool that was originally created in a University of Nebraska research lab. But then again, the past Colorado fire season was out of the ordinary, so ‘out-of-the-box’ concepts are warranted.
Drone Amplified CEO Carrick Detweiler, PhD, discovered a new way to use drones as a ‘useful tool for firefighters.’ Along with designing a proprietary software program, Detweiler created Ignis, a system that attaches to the bottom of a drone operated by software control that carries a payload of fire-retardant chemicals. “The payload consists of 400 ‘ignition spheres’ the size of a ping pong ball, each filled with potassium permanganate,” he said. “In fact, Ignis has been nicknamed the ‘ping-pong ball machine’,” laughed Detweiler.
The spheres are punctured and injected with glycol, generating a chemical reaction to start fires while the Ignis system releases the spheres. “With the lightweight Ignis system, firefighters are able to use Ignis with drones, instead of full-sized manned helicopters, to safely prescribe burns during the wetter seasons when it’s safer to do so,” Detweiler said. “Within the past year, the Ignis system dropped over 200,000 ignition spheres to help contain wildfires.”
In 2017, Detweiler began working with the DOI-USFS to field the new firefighting resource to further develop its capabilities. “The USFS team of professionals are working hard to integrate drone systems technology,” he said. “Our system is scaled to the needs of the USFS and the DOI with easy-to-use software and applications by skilled firefighters and drone pilots.”
the company is designing a hybrid computer-aided human sensor software program that detects fire progression
In air space today, optionally piloted aircraft keep pilots safe with sensors that automatically elevate to observe the entire environment as opposed to the traditional ‘hold and hover’, said Erickson’s Baxter. “The Sikorsky matrix technology automates the firefighting mission by allowing the aircraft to take off and fly automatically, without a pilot onboard,” he said. “The technology takes care of that.” Technology is the ‘gap filler’ that provides the answers for today’s questions about how to effectively and efficiently manage wildland firefighting, said Baxter, adding: “Autonomous flight controls in the area of drones is the future.”
With multiple programs to support wildland aerial firefighting, Baxter said the company is designing a hybrid computer-aided human sensor software program that detects fire progression, and a digital platform to communicate more efficiently within the unmanned aerial system (UAS) specifically for nighttime missions: “Once a UAS is in flight, we manipulate the controls connected to the flight computer. By creating a layer on top of that to execute a firefighting mission, it calculates sensory perception of the environment, notably fire progression. The question is, ‘how do you get a computer to sense the progression of a fire?’ The answer lies in creating the software that allows the computer to take in data through intensive coding,” he said.
Erickson is also designing a digital platform to communicate more efficiently within the UAS for air attack, and ground firefighting missions, specifically nighttime operations. “Our end game program is to build aircraft to fight fires in very difficult environments such as nighttime operations,” said Baxter.
FAA 2030 vision focus on safety
Cliff Johnson, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Senior Research and Development Engineer, conducts research to improve the safety of rotorcraft, currently working in various mission segments, including SAR and aerial firefighting. The most important piece of technology in aerial firefighting, said Johnson, is Vision Systems Technology. “This technology could allow for enhanced situational awareness and a higher safety level while allowing operations in low-visibility environments (i.e. smoke and haze),” he said. “With the prevalence of fires this past season, a lot of operations were grounded due to low visibility.”
the most productive piece of research and technology is that which saves lives
Research efforts via flight test trials and simulations are continuing in the areas of displays, sensors and visual references, examining head-worn and helmet-mounted display symbology, information, and user interface (UI); characterizing multi-sensor (infrared, millimeter wave, light imaging detection ranging (LIDAR)) performance in weather conditions; and are focused on examining the visual references a pilot needs to acquire both with and without advanced vision systems.
“There is likely to be an evolution in the size and power of sensors, displays, recording devices, and data analytics to gauge key insights on operations,” said Johnson.
Augmented reality could become a standard influencing the information available to a pilot via non-traditional means (i.e. helmet-mounted, head-worn displays, etc.). “Artificial intelligence / machine learning will also continue to drive advances into operational knowledge, informing positive changes in operations and maintenance, thereby increasing safety,” said Johnson. Technology will continue to evolve through 2030, with a key push toward greater reliance on automation leading to better safety, he concluded: “To date, the most productive piece of research and technology is that which saves lives.”
The future will see more computer-controlled aircraft, said Baxter: “We are building a first-of-its-kind aircraft now and will be ‘wheels off the ground’ in 2022.”
Whether it is new aircraft, adapting older models, or changing the kind of retardant used, there is no doubt that the world of aerial firefighting has got exciting times ahead, with high levels of innovation and creativity to focus on minimizing the damage done from wildfires around the world. And as the climate changes, there is no doubt that such innovation is of global importance.