Current innovations in airborne firefighting efforts
Innovations over the years have enabled the practice of aerial firefighting to continually evolve from the briefly used ‘borate bombers’ of the mid-1950s to the extensive variety of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft used today. Although this year there are fewer wildfires than in the past, they are increasing in severity and occurring across the globe and thus the importance of continued innovations in aerial firefighting cannot be understated. From advances in night aerial firefighting to novel training methods, providers and operators are developing and employing new techniques and the world of aerial firefighting continues to evolve apace.
AirMed&Rescue magazine spoke with Richard Butterworth, who is Head of Training at Australia-based Kestrel, which has been conducting aerial firefighting since the early 1990s, about the innovations the provider is currently utilising. “In 2016, Kestrel initiated a development program for a night aerial fire suppression capability utilizing multi-engine rotorcraft with the assistance of night vision technology,” he said.
“The initial proof of concept and achievement of an initial operational capability was followed by multiple fire seasons focused on operational effectiveness and the formation of standardized work practices.” Butterworth explained that, at the time of writing, Kestrel is the only operator in Australia with regulatory approval for unrestricted first attack for the protection of life and critical infrastructure at night. “This latest approval affords Kestrel an operational envelope consistent with day response operations,” he confirmed.
Chris Niemann, General Manager of US-based Aero-Flite, Inc. told AirMed&Rescue that the biggest news for the aerial firefighting company this year is the welcoming of the new Dash 8-400AT air tanker into its operations. “The new air tanker will arrive this spring, joining our fleet of seven Avro RJ85 and four Canadair CL-415 aircraft. We are very excited as it fills a much-needed gap for our customers. It can operate out of shorter runways, giving customers the ability to position a large air tanker closer to remote forested regions where wildfires occur.”
Niemann went on to highlight more of the new air tanker’s exciting capabilities: “Its 2,642 US gallon tank is mounted externally, keeping the cabin and cockpit pressurised, reducing pilot fatigue when flying in hot, challenging conditions. The aircraft is also fast, holding three ‘Time to Climb’ turboprop records. It flies at speeds equivalent to a jet tanker to and from the fire. That speed translates into a quick initial attack capability with a reduced turnaround time for reloading. It also has the benefit of producing 30 per cent fewer emissions while burning significantly less fuel than air tankers of a similar size. That translates into both cost savings and a smaller carbon footprint. It’s both powerful and environmentally conscious.”
Improvements and advancements in aerial firefighting technoloy
At Erickson Inc., a US-based aerospace manufacturing and aviation service provider, two key upgrades are underway: “As the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for the Sikorsky S-64 Air Crane® helicopter, we’re constantly working to upgrade this aircraft and ensure it’s always best in class. In the past 12 months, we have been really focused on two upgrades to complement the platform: composite main rotor blades (CMRB) and the water cannon,” as Brittany Black, Senior Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Business Development, told AirMed&Rescue. “First, in partnership with Helicopter Transport Services (HTS), we developed, produced, and received final FAA approval for the composite main rotor blades (CMRB), allowing for additional performance and payload. Second, we are currently innovating our new and improved aerial water cannon, designed to be the world’s most powerful, longest-reaching water cannon. The water cannon will enhance the aircraft’s capabilities and effectiveness for a variety of mission types, including urban firefighting.”
Robert Edson is Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at US-based Intterra, which provides firefighting agencies analytics to facilitate safety and effectiveness. He provided an insight into key innovations, including:
- Digital Flightbag Integrations (ForeFlight) Integration
- Waypoint – a mission location can be shared from maps to ForeFlight users in just a few clicks
- Fire Map – create a fire map in Intterra and share it to pilots using ForeFlight so all are seeing the same common picture
- Airborne Intel Tool – track aerial intel remote sensing missions; near real-time sharing of video, georeferenced imagery, and tactical mapping from the aircraft/satellite to boots on the ground.
A recent innovation for Canada-based aerial firefighting operator Conair Aerial Firefighting is its Training and Tactics Centre, as Jeff Berry, Director Business Development, reported: “It is the world’s largest and most comprehensive aerial firefighting training facility. It is the first commercial aviation mission-based training system built to the standards of military mission simulation and debriefing. It was built to provide our pilots with the ability to perform mission-based procedures within the safe environment of flight simulators.”
Highlighting its importance, he told AirMed&Rescue: “Everyone learns by doing and the repetitive practice using real-life scenarios in a controlled setting creates pilots that are better prepared for fighting fires in the real world. The program is a big shift in the way that aerial firefighting pilots are trained.”
The Bambi Bucket was invented in 1978 by SEI Industries founder Don Arney and introduced to the firefighting community in 1982. SEI is a Canada-based industrial fabric products manufacturer that supports aerial firefighting with its products. Mark Tayler, General Manager at the company, shared with AirMed&Rescue some of the latest innovations for the Bambi lines: “These include improvements to the Bambi Standard and Bambi Max product lines as well as development work for future products including Bambi New Gen, Bambi Eclipse and Bambi i-Max buckets. The changes made to both the Standard and Max product lines are based on valuable feedback from our customers.” Tayler went on to detail some of the latest additional upgrades the SEI team has been working on: “The team has also completed upgrades to the Red Dragon aerial ignition dispenser, and has launched a new product called the Sling Dragon for large scale aerial ignition operations using a hopper with 5,000 Dragon Eggs (ignition spheres).”
Better firefighting outcomes through innovation
The experts that spoke with AirMed&Rescue shared some of the achievements that have been facilitated by innovations in aerial firefighting. It is clear that these advancements have played a key role in maximising success. For example, Butterworth highlighted the importance of Kestrel’s successful development of night aerial fire suppression: “This represents a global benchmark in terms of capability advancement and innovation, requiring careful attention and management to optimise safety across all layers and phases of the program,” he said. For Niemann, the introduction of a new air tanker is a key achievement for Aero-Flite: “I am proud of our team for taking on the daunting task of introducing a new air tanker into not only an existing operation, but also into a new market,” he told AirMed&Rescue. “There are many steps in the process of bringing a new air tanker into service in the US. Regulatory approval is a must at every step in the process, and it all culminates in our customers certifying the aircraft for use in aerial firefighting. The team supports these activities with the help of the latest technologies incorporated throughout all facets of our company.”
Erickson’s Black highlighted the development of the first ever tanked helicopter for aerial firefighting, and the debut of the aerial water cannon and the composite main rotor blades as revolutionary innovations, while an important achievement for Intterra is the Intterra Airborne Intel Tool, which Edson says is one of the greatest advances in aerial firefighting. “For over a decade, we have delivered near real-time aircraft intel directly to the people who need it most, and integrated that data into a real-time common operating picture with ground crew locations, real-time field mapping and other critical data sets,” he stated. Berry said that Conair’s Training and Tactics Centre is a standout achievement, particularly given the importance of training in the context of the increasing complexity of wildfires. “We are responding to more complex fires with multiple assets. Our training environment must prepare our new pilots, and practice our experienced pilots, for this new, more complicated, environment. Results gained from the specialised software and platforms enable our team to stay safe while executing more accurate drops in real-life, which protect firefighters, communities, and resources. Great results require a great team – and a great team requires great training.”
The limitless potential of aerial firefighting innovations
Looking ahead to possible future innovations with the potential to enhance aerial firefighting, Niemann believes there will be substantial growth through innovation in aircrew training methods. “Training is an area that has historically focused on flight time. I see opportunities for technical advancement in mission-based simulator training, similar to the systems used by the military to train pilots. Specialised simulators can provide real-life scenarios in virtual environments, enabling more focused pilot training to develop the critical skills required by the industry in a shorter timeframe. Advances in connectivity will enable pilots of different platforms and missions to train together with their ground element counterparts, regardless of geographic location. The aviation industry as a whole is bracing for a shortage of pilots in the future while fire seasons continue to grow. Aerial firefighting will need innovative training methods to address the challenges of external industry pilot pressures, an ageing workforce, and the increased pool of air tankers required to meet the worldwide growing demand. The ability to train and certify already experienced pilots on aerial firefighting tactics in air tankers over wildfires from a virtual setting will be a huge advancement for the sector.”
Black told AirMed&Rescue that technology will prove invaluable for the future of innovations in aerial firefighting and highlighted that there is almost limitless potential here: “There are immense growth opportunities through the use of technology to improve performance and safety for the flight crew. For example, technology like Intterra allows us to send ground layer intel to the cockpit. This is the link to getting the situational awareness data we need.” Edson predicts continued advances in communication and information sharing will help optimise connectivity: “Seamless real-time sharing of map info between aircraft and boots on the ground – tracking aerial and ground resources in the same map, expanded sharing of video and other products from drones and aircraft, use of AI to transform intel products into used decision support information. Good connectivity is the big challenge,” he said.
Berry underlined that there is no time to waste in forging ahead with aerial firefighting innovations due to the severity of the situation at hand, and that this will require a tandem approach: “Efforts and technology must be incorporated to ensure the fastest possible detection and response on those most critical days to improve initial attack success. Only five per cent of wildfires cause 95 per cent of damage. The world needs to respond to those fires before they grow into beasts. In order to dispatch fast, data collection needs to happen fast. Whether it’s by the public, satellites, drones, or surveillance aircraft,” he told AirMed&Rescue. “Plus, automated AI enhanced software is needed to interpret data, recommend response decisions, and communicate in real time to wildfire management teams on tanker bases, in dispatch centres, and on the ground. Ultimately, innovations that provide a balanced, aggressive aerial approach, and improved speed of decision making, is where the future is going.”
Aerial firefighting providers and operators are acutely aware of the gravity of wildfires and their growing severity and are developing and harnessing innovations that can make aerial firefighting capabilities as robust as possible. From impressive night aerial fire suppression capabilities and a continued focus on optimizing safety, to the introduction of a new air tanker that is not only powerful but is environmentally conscious, innovations are taking into consideration key concerns and pushing the envelope. Upgrades to aircraft are constantly occurring, along with innovations and updates to existing product lines to ensure their full aerial firefighting potential is maximized. A strong focus on training in order to develop and maintain the best teams possible is essential and, looking ahead, can be further enhanced by incorporating technological innovations such as the latest simulation training programs. Further future needs and priorities include improvements in data transmission and collection, with real-time data sharing, as well as improvements in communication and connectivity. The role of AI will prove key in many of these areas and a relentless focus on optimisation and innovation will ensure the aerial firefighting industry can tackle the shifting challenges of wildfires head-on.