DARPA wants to launch and recover swarms of drones from a C-130

In 2009 and 2013 two companies proposed concepts for aerial firefighting that involved launching drones from motherships

Above: an artists concept of a swarm of drones launched from a C-130. Department of Defence image.

Launching drones from an aircraft is not new — that’s the definition of an air-launched cruise missile. But recovering it in mid-air on the mothership has not been done.

From the NavyTimes:

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency plans to demonstrate the ability to launch and recover swarms of drones from a C-130 sometime in 2019, according to statements by the agency and by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, one of two companies contracted to design prototype of the drones. The other is Dynetics.

Once dispatched, the drones would be outfitted with different payloads in order to accomplish an assortment of missions, to include ISR, electronic warfare, signals intelligence and even kinetic effects.

“When the [drones] complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours,” according to DARPA.

Each drone would be capable of a remaining on station for one hour at a range of 300 nautical miles while carrying a 60-pound payload, according to General Atomics.

The company is incorporating commercial technology to drive down the cost of the [drones]. The goal is for each drone to come in under $500,000 per unit, a company representative told Defense News, a sister publication, at an August demonstration.

Two proposals with similarities to this concept have been proposed for aerial firefighting, but did not include the possibility of recovering the drones on the mothership while in flight.

In 2009 John A. Hoffman, with Fire Termination Equipment, Inc., applied for a U. S. Patent for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that would be transported by a mothership, either internally or externally, and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground. After dropping retardant on the fire it would land to reload, or might be a single use aircraft and would be “destroyed in the release step”. In the latter case the UAV would be “possibly constructed of frangible material so as to crash into the fire area”.

Fire Termination Equipment concept
Fire Termination Equipment concept, from the patent application.

In 2013 we wrote about another concept, by Nitrofirex. Their UAVs would be transported in a large mothership and released through the rear cargo door. The folded wings would deploy and the aircraft would glide autonomously to the target then “automatically and with great precision” release the water or retardant. The small engine which had been idling would power the ship back to the tanker base where it would be reloaded and inserted back into a mothership. There is even a video:

If the DARPA program comes to fruition, it is hard to see how a UAV carrying 60 pounds, or about 7 gallons of retardant, could have a meaningful effect on a wildfire. We were not able to determine how many gallons the other two proposals could carry. If the UAV was scaled up to carry at least 1,000 gallons, you’re probably not going to get many of them in a C-130. However, a C-5A Galaxy might be a difference-maker. That is, if price is no object.

Yamaha brings their crop dusting helicopter drone to the U.S.

Above: A Yamaha helicopter drone used in the Napa Valley to spray a fungicide over a vineyard. Screen grab from the Yamaha video below.

Yamaha helicopter drones have been used for 25 years in Japan for spraying chemicals over rice and other crops. Recently the company has been testing the aircraft in California’s Napa Valley to spray a preventative fungicide to keep powdery mildew from forming on grapes.

It makes you wonder if a helicopter drone would ever be used to spray or drop water or retardant on a wildfire. In 2015 Lockheed Martin and K-Max demonstrated the use of a full size drone, an optionally-piloted K-MAX, to haul external loads and drop water.

K-MAX remotely piloted dipping water
A remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter refills a water bucket during a demonstration October 14, 2015 east of Boise, ID.

Man arrested and charged with flying drone at the Goodwin Fire

This article first appeared on Wildfire Today.

Gene Alan Carpenter
Gene Alan Carpenter

A man was arrested in Prescott, Arizona for flying a drone into the airspace near the Goodwin Fire that as of Friday had burned over 25,000 acres southeast of the city.

Gene Alan Carpenter, a 54-year-old from Prescott Valley, is accused of endangering 14 aircraft and ground personnel with a “substantial risk of imminent death or physical injury” by flying a drone near or over the fire. All firefighting aircraft had to be grounded for about an hour on Wednesday, June 28.

In 2016 Arizona passed a law making it illegal to fly a drone that interfered with emergency or law enforcement efforts. It is likely that a Temporary Flight Restriction was in effect over the fire at that time which would make it a violation of federal law for any aircraft to invade the space without permission.

If a drone collided with a firefighting helicopter or fixed wing aircraft it could cause great harm especially if it hit a windshield or engine. And if the aircraft crashes, killing the pilots, firefighters on the ground would also be in danger from the falling debris.

The safety of firefighters is compromised when all of the helicopters, lead planes, air attack, and air tankers are grounded, preventing the aircraft from slowing the fire so that firefighters can move in and construct fireline. When aircraft and ground personnel disengage, homes and private property could be destroyed that might otherwise have been saved with an aggressive firefighting attack. Some air tankers when grounded by an intruding aircraft can’t land with a full load of retardant, so they have to jettison it, wasting thousands of dollars worth of the product.

On June 24 multiple witnesses reported seeing a man operating a drone at the Goodwin Fire standing next to a white van.

Below is an excerpt from an article at 12news:

The sheriff’s office said based on witness information, drone descriptions and photos from Carpenter’s website showing drone views of the Goodwin Fire, deputies began searching for him.

Carpenter was arrested Friday afternoon after an off-duty deputy spotted his van on Willow Creek Road in Prescott. The drone was found in the van and seized.

Detectives are meeting with federal officials Monday to discuss additional charges based on the federal statutes regarding temporary flight restrictions.

Mr. Carter is in custody at Yavapai County facilities at Camp Verde, Arizona charged with 14 counts of endangerment, all felonies, and one misdemeanor.

LA Fire Department intends to use drones

Above: A drone was tested at Homestead National Historic Site April 22, 2016 to determine the feasibility of using it to ignite a prescribed fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Los Angeles Fire Department is seeking approval to use drones to provide additional situational awareness for firefighters. They will be following in the footsteps of the Austin and New York City Fire Departments that have been operating drones for a while.

According to SPCR.org:

The main reason is to increase firefighter safety. And some good examples might be, a long duration structure fire. By long duration I mean 30 minutes or longer. We could put up a UAV in the air and then have the image transmitted down to the command post, down in the street. The incident commander can then determine whether or not we should deploy firefighters to ventilate the roof. That’s a good example of how they would enhance firefighter safety.

The Department’s next step is to obtain approval from the Public Safety Committee, the City Council, and eventually the Federal Aviation Administration. They are optimistically hoping to have all the permissions by August, 2017.

Operator of illegal drone at Pinal Fire cited

This drone intrusion seriously compromised active helicopter operations at the Helibase and prevented an incident helicopter from returning from its mission until the intrusion was cleared.

Above: a P2V air tanker drops on the northern end of the Pinal Fire south of Globe, Arizona on May 24, 2017. Inciweb photo.

Drones operating illegally at the Pinal Fire south of Globe, Arizona have interfered with aviation operations four times since the fire started. One of those intrusions resulted in the drone being confiscated and the operator cited. Below is the text of a Rapid Lesson Sharing document about the incident, distributed by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

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“On May 20 at approximately 1805, an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)—or drone—was spotted 60 yards from the Pinal Fire Helibase at approximately 50 feet above ground level.

The UAS was flying in the designated flight path of this incident’s helicopters where they were making their descents to land at the Pinal Fire Helibase, located within the city limits of Globe, Arizona. The UAS was white in color and approximately two feet in diameter.

Upon seeing the UAS, Helibase personnel contacted Helicopter 0TA, an incident helicopter that was flying a mission over the fire, to inform the pilot of the UAS intrusion into the Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) and the hazard associated with the UAS being in the area.

The helicopter was asked to not come back to the Helibase until fire personnel were sure that the UAS was clear of the area. The Helibase Manager immediately called the Air Operations Branch Director (AOBD) to inform him of the UAS intrusion. The AOBD, in turn, contacted incident Law Enforcement—who responded immediately to the Helibase.

Helitack personnel were able to track the UAS while it was in flight. They were proactive in tracking the UAS and following its flight path. They observed the aircraft descend and land at a nearby residence in the vicinity of the Pinal Fire Incident Command Post.

UAS (Drone) Operator Located and Cited

The LEO arrived at the Helibase. He was informed of the location where the UAS descended and landed. The LEO had enough information to go make contact with the UAS operator and was able to confiscate the UAS and cite the individual.

This UAS intrusion within the TFR posed a serious safety concern for incident pilots and fire personnel involved in helicopter aviation missions on the Pinal Fire. The UAS intrusion impeded the operations of the Helibase and—should a collision occur—posed a serious hazard.

Quick and decisive action by the Pinal Fire Helibase Manager, incident Helibase Crewmembers, and local Law Enforcement personnel brought this intrusion incident to a quick and decisive resolution.

LESSONS

  • Establish appropriate TFRs early in the incident and ensure that the incident Helibase is included in the polygon.
  • All fire personnel should stay alert to the possibility of UAS intrusions, particularly when operations are in or near an urban setting.
  • If a UAS is sighted within a fire’s theater of operations, ensure that the intrusion is communicated to all incident personnel.
  • If a UAS intrusion should occur, ensure that incident personnel are diligent and persistent in documenting information relative to the intrusion, including: UAS description, direction of flight, and—if possible—determining the originating location of the UAS for LEO follow-up.
  • Provide UAS cautionary messaging as part of the incident narrative summary in INCIWEB.”

Drones being added to Grand Canyon-area wildfire toolbox

Above: An example of one type of drone that can be used to assist in wildfire operations. 

Wildland firefighters at Grand Canyon National Park have added drones to their toolkits, marking the latest iteration of unmanned aircraft systems’ love-hate relationship when it comes to wildfire. 

Rangers have started using drones to scout fires from above, the Grand Canyon News reported. From the article published Tuesday:

Justin Jager, interagency aviation officer for Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab and Coconino National Forests and Flagstaff and Verde Valley Area National Monuments, said the drones are utilized in conjunction with traditional methods. Operators use the devices to scout fire lines, or communicate information to other personnel in the area.

The unmanned systems aren’t replacing fixed-wing scouting planes. Rather, they’re being used to search a fire’s outer edges and providing intelligence that can help establish stronger fire lines.

Also from the Grand Canyon News: 

“We’re taking what we’re learning and creating a guide for other agencies, like BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or other national parks to create their own programs,” Jager said. “I think they can all benefit from adding this tool.”

Drones and the Grand Canyon have been in the news for other reasons of late, most recently in assisting search and rescue operations for LouAnn Merrell and her step-grandson Jackson Standefer. Both went missing in April while on a hike — the boy’s body has since been recovered, though the woman has not yet been located.

Grand Canyon National Park is the only park with its own fleet of unmanned aircraft that can be used for locating people who have gotten lost, stranded, injured or killed. Under a program that began last fall, it has five drones and four certified operators, the Associated Press reported. 

The drones are about 18 inches across and 10 inches high, with a battery life of about 20 minutes. Drone operators watch the video in real time and then analyze it again at the end of the day.

As fire season revs up, so will conversations about the crossroads of the devices and wildfire. While crews have successfully used drones for recon and to aid in igniting prescribed burns, it’s only a matter of time until a curious hobbyist — once again — flies too close to firefighting operations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come out in the past supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in their simple message to drone operators: If you fly; we can’t.

“Flying a drone near aerial firefighting aircraft doesn’t just pose a hazard to the pilots,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “When aircraft are grounded because an unmanned aircraft is in the vicinity, lives are put at greater risk.”

That didn’t matter. After a string of incidents last year, the FAA warned in a mass email to recreational drone operators that those “who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.”

Looking for more about the intersection of drones and wildfire? This dated, yet relevant, Smithsonian video below documents the use of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone in the August, 2013, Rim Fire in California.

Might the USFS acquire military surplus Predator drones?

With 24 hours of endurance they could provide continuous real-time intelligence to firefighters on the ground.

Above: MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

A decision by the U.S. Air Force to retire an aircraft could help the U.S. Forest Service and other wildland fire agencies provide a safer working environment for their firefighters.

The Air Force will stop flying their MQ-1 Predator drones as early as July 1 of this year as they completely transition to the much more capable MQ-9 Reaper. The MQ-1 was never designed to carry weapons since it was built with a payload capacity of only 200 pounds. Eventually some of the aircraft had their wings and hard points beefed up and were able to carry various combinations of Hellfire, Stinger, and Griffin missiles.

The replacement, the MQ-9, can carry up to 4,000 pounds of both missiles and bombs.

A long-endurance drone orbiting over a wildland fire for up to 24 hours at a time would help provide an often missing and very important piece of situation awareness information — the real time location of the fire and the location of personnel and equipment. We call this the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety.

Using its true color and infrared sensors it could help fireline supervisors make decisions about where to deploy, and more importantly not deploy, firefighters based on their view of exactly where the fire is, the intensity, and the rate of spread. Too many firefighters have perished in part because they were not aware of where the fire was in relation to their location.

Drones have been used before on wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.

And in 2013 we wrote:

The California National Guard is operating a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle over the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park. The MQ-1 Predator is streaming real-time video down to the Incident Command Post and reportedly alerted firefighters to a flare-up they otherwise would not have immediately seen.

A drone orbiting over a fire could also serve as a radio repeater and provide an aerial hub for a network of location trackers carried by firefighters which would enable icons representing their real time locations to be shown on maps.

In recent years the US Forest Service has shown a willingness to utilize discarded military aircraft, such as the Sherpa and the HC-130H.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
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