Firefighting drone technology

canadair scooper firefighting
Fighting fires with science

Amy Gallagher explains how firefighting drone technology designed to protect people and property is developing; but without financial backing from the government, implementation continues to be a challenge

A unique category of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), known as optionally piloted helicopters (OPH), has demonstrated the potential to minimise time gaps in aerial wildfire firefighting, supporting aggressive wildland firefighting strategies while leveraging already proven military technology in the US.

Potential for change, stymied by funding

“During the average 16-hour aerial firefighting time gap, when night and daytime periods of reduced visibility prevent manned aircraft from flying, remotely piloted OPH could provide critical initial or extended attack, firefighter resupply, or even emergency extraction support,” said Mark Bathrick, Director of the Office of Aviation Services (OAS) for the US Department of Interior (DOI).

OPH, he added, are actually safer than traditional UAS. “OPH have redundant systems that are easier to see, equipped with onboard electronic identification equipment, and incorporate military grade encryption that prevents unauthorised control,” he told AirMed&Rescue. “The OPH can literally triple the amount of support from the air to the  irefighters.”

Unfortunately, OPH integration testing stalled in 2015, not due to technical issues, but due to a lack of follow-on funding. Although a new law supporting the DOI in support of wildland firefighting was passed on 12 March 2019, the Wildfire Technology Modernization of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, and was a step in the right direction, it was also a step back. Bathrick explained: “The step forward is that the Act directed the Interior to ‘assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations’. The backwards step is that we had done that four to five years ago with the development of a fully vetted and collaborated test plan that included assessments of this technology, demonstration flight tests in 2014 and 2015, published test results, and resultant published assessments of the technology. Although all of this is publicly available and has been briefed and presented in numerous government and industry forums since 2015, the legislation directs something that’s already been done up to five years ago, rather than directing the integration of this demonstrated and assessed technology.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee SD-366, spoke on 5 June 2019 in support of UAS or drones for firefighting, which are playing a greater role in wildfire management response – from detecting to mapping and even helping to contain wildfires. “It’s far cheaper [to] operate, maintain and train personnel on drones and also helps reduce risks for pilots, crews and firefighters,” said Sen Murkowski. “We can and should do more in land management, including wildfire management.”

Money talks

In 2017, the government responded to more than 71,000 wildfires and agencies spent more than US$3 billion on wildfire suppression in 2018, but that figure doesn’t include the costs of preparing equipment and personnel, rehabilitating burnt land, rebuilding homes or the economic impact of lost land and businesses, stated Bathrick.

“Industry really ‘stepped up to the plate’ in 2014 and 2015 funding flight demonstrations of OPH technology in wildland firefighting tests at the New York State FAA UAS Test Site and in Boise, Idaho, home of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC),” said Bathrick.  “In each demonstration, before an audience of federal officials the aircraft met all required test phase exit criteria.” 

Despite the initial show of support, government funding to complete the integration has not yet materialised. “DOI bureaus face significant funding demands in preparing for and carrying out operational wildland firefighting support and OAS does not receive funding for aircraft research and development (R&D),” he said. “Without additional funding, the bureaus must balance current operational needs with their desire to invest in future capabilities.”

helicopter bambi bucket firefighting

Industry and association support

While there is continued support from the industry and its related associations, the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] does not have any applications in support of optionally or unmanned firefighting operations. “However, we would act swiftly on any application from a public entity such as a fire department flying a public aircraft operation of this type,” said Marcia Adams, FAA spokesperson. “We strongly support public safety agencies using innovative technology like unmanned aircraft to increase safety in dangerous circumstances.”

The Administration is already seeing unique concepts of operation, such as UAS launched from fire trucks with the ability to carry charged hose

The Administration is already seeing unique concepts of operation, such as UAS launched from fire trucks with the ability to carry charged hoses, she added.

“We encourage entities considering the use of optionally or unmanned aircraft to consider how the technology can benefit their mission,” said Adams. “There are clear advantages to not sending humans into hostile or dangerous environments, and this is certainly the case in fighting wildfires.”

The possibilities seem limitless, she added: “We stand ready to work with the public safety community to facilitate their ideas.”

Meanwhile, industry associations are also in support of strategic technology to fight wildfires: “The helicopter community is the single largest nexus with integrating OPH,” said Bathrick. The manned and unmanned aspects are very similar with respect to the helicopter’s mission specifics, the same altitude, and its close proximity to the ground.”

According to Chris Martino, VP Operations, Helicopter Association International [HAI] has introduced a UAS-specific membership category for its HAI members. “Many of the members are standing up UAS divisions and departments to amplify their ability to get their customers what they need,” Martino told AirMed&Rescue. “The beauty of using drones is the ability of its capability of surveillance throughout the night which allows those on the ground to monitor the fire all night when valuable information can be captured.”

Augmenting drone technology with manned capabilities is more efficient than not, he added: “To be the most effective, however, it takes all of us.”

plane firefighting

Defence industry promotes OPH integration

While the lack of follow-on congressional funding has stalled the integration of OPH in support of wildland firefighters and the communities they protect, the defence industry continues to move forward with innovations that promote pilot relief through autonomous augmentation and OPH technology, explained Bathrick.

Lockheed Martin Sikorsky’s Igor Cherepinsky, Director of Autonomy Programs, commented: “In the military and commercial world of aviation, the technology removes particularities, allowing the pilot to gain greater situational awareness in order to mentally prepare for the emergency ahead. The pilot tells the system what the mission is, where you want to go; the pilot can actually specify the mission data.”

For example, added Cherepinsky: “A pilot enters data into the system about the location of a downed pilot. Meanwhile, the technology calculates the environmental constraints, including weather, terrain and other potentially dangerous elements. The technology [OPH] allows the pilot the time to prepare for the mission ahead.”

According to Barbara Lindauer, Business Development Manager for Lockheed Martin Sikorsky Autonomy Programs, the company’s MATRIX technology programme is developing systems intelligence that will give operators the confidence to fly their large rotorcraft safely, reliably and affordably as autonomous or optionally piloted aircraft. “The programme will also improve operator effectiveness when making decisions for manned aircraft,” she concluded.

sikorsky lockheed martin 2

Sikorsky Lockheed Martin

Protecting people and property

In 2018, the US was home to over 58,000 wildfire starts, which burned approximately nine million acres, destroying over 25,000 homes and businesses along its wicked paths, and unnecessary loss of human lives, including firefighters, according to Bathrick’s extensive research.

“Although fire is a natural part of our ecosystem, fire at the loss of human life is not,” said Bathrick. “If you think about the number of Americans directly threatened by wildfire annually, that’s more than the number of Americans directly threatened by war or terrorism.” 

As a retired US Navy jet test pilot, Bathrick should know. In recent years, these losses and costs have continued to climb, he said.

In the 88 years since water was first dropped from an aircraft on a wildfire, we’ve only been able to support our firefighters for an average of one third of the day.

“In the military, aviation supports the ground troops; in our case that’s our firefighters on the ground,” said Bathrick. “It’s the firefighters who contain and eventually extinguish wildfires. While in the military, aviation support to the troops is available 24/7.

In the 88 years since water was first dropped from an aircraft on a wildfire, we’ve only been able to support our firefighters for an average of one third of the day.” That support includes initial attack when fires are discovered, extended attack, movement of resupply to firefighters on the ground, and at times emergency extraction of firefighters in peril, he explained.

According to Bathrick, that is another advantage of OPH. “Generally, night and early morning periods bring lower temperatures, higher relative humidity, and reduced wind speeds that make the fire more vulnerable to attack,” he added. “Nighttime and smoke obscured daylight periods have posed a dangerous environment for aerial firefighting pilots ... the integration of OPH technology that could possibly triple the time we’re able to provide them with logistical and direct air support could be a game-changer in this mission area.”

forest fire

Increased savings, service and safety

Following the completion of the second industry-funded OPH flight demonstration in 2015, it was estimated the remaining government integration testing would cost $10 million, according to Bathrick. As has been previously mentioned and discussed in the 2018 primer, the history of optionally piloted aircraft is that the technology is retrofitted to existing aircraft, so the cost to outfit firefighting aircraft would be incremental versus having to buy new aircraft, he explained.

“The proposed OPH concept of operations builds on this by pointing out this will result in no additional aircraft being required, thereby reducing any increased aircraft footprint within the fire area,” he said. “As the OPH would be flown in the pilot-in-the-cockpit mode during traditional clear air flying periods, today’s pilots would fly just as they do now and there would be no manned-unmanned aircraft integration issues among these aircraft and their manned fixed-wing counterparts.”  

For both the government and the contract helicopter companies, there are financial incentives. “The government can amortise the fixed costs of exclusive-use contracts over more flight hours, while companies providing OPH services should experience increased revenue through greater usage,” explained Bathrick. “This greater revenue could contribute to increased safety as some of it is ploughed back into maintenance, technology upgrades and training.”

The potential for OPH to finally deliver outcome effectiveness measurements on retardant and suppressant use would also provide valuable information to Congress and the public, while the opportunity to greatly augment available initial and direct attack resources on wildfires could result in substantial reductions in annual firefighting costs and human losses, he added.

“As with any new technology, the key is building acceptance through continued conversations and collaboration with all stakeholders; we remain committed to that,” said Bathrick. “We are ready to complete the integration testing outlined in our 2015 plan and field this new capability.”