Remotely-piloted helicopter demonstrates dropping water on a simulated fire

K-MAX remotely piloted dipping water

A remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter refills a water bucket during testing before an October 14, 2015 demonstration east of Boise, ID. Screen grab from Lockheed Martin video.

Wildland fire officials from federal agencies on Wednesday watched a remotely-piloted helicopter dropping water on a simulated fire and hauling cargo in an external load. The K-MAX helicopter shown today, which almost qualifies as a Type 1 helicopter, has been configured by the Lockheed Martin and K-Max Corporations to be either flown by a pilot on board, or a pilot in a remote location.

Ironically the demonstration occurred on a day when smoke was visible in the air from the 4,200-acre Walker Fire, 13 miles north of the Lucky Peak Helibase where the demo took place east of Boise, Idaho. A safety pilot was on board in case a problem developed.

The hour and a half demonstration included the following missions:

  • Spot drop – 100 feet
  • Spot drop – 55 feet
  • Trailing drop – 55 feet both at the demo area and at the ridge
  • Carousel delivery – 55 feet, two each to the demo area and on the ridge
  • Backhaul Cargo from the ridge – 150 feet

(The video above was shot by Lockheed Martin during testing prior to an October 14, 2015 demonstration of a remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter dropping water on on a simulated wildfire.)

Below is an excerpt from an AP article:

The K-MAX demonstrated Wednesday has three communication methods, using line of sight and two different satellite links. The craft can be remotely controlled, but it also flies autonomously after being told what to do.

Even if it loses contact with ground controllers, it can complete a task, officials said. It can also be programmed to fly to a specific landing zone on its own if it loses communication for a pre-set amount of time, such as 10 minutes.

“The technology of the auto-control for the aircraft is not really the hard part. It’s all this sensor technology that integrates with the autopilot to tell the helicopter where it’s at”, said Mark Bathrick, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services.

Lockheed Martin-configured unmanned K-MAXs delivered thousands of loads of supplies and equipment to soldiers in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014, carrying more than 4.5 million pounds of cargo, sometimes through areas that would be considered unacceptably risky for human pilots.

Unlike Predator drones, which are remotely piloted, the K-MAX helicopters in Afghanistan followed a pre-programmed route using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, and required human intervention only to get started.

If this technology matures to the point where fire officials would feel comfortable using it on actual fires, a helicopter like the K-MAX could be flown during the day (the old fashioned way) with a pilot on board, and then during smoky conditions or at night when most other firefighting aircraft are grounded it could still be effective — dropping water to slow down a fire when the blaze is most vulnerable to suppression activity. Fires usually more more slowly at night and a water drop when the temperature is lower and the relative humidity is higher would be more effective as long as firefighters were on the ground and able to take advantage of the temporary slowing of the fire’s spread.

Bombardier closes CL-415 air tanker plant in Ontario, Canada

Alberta air tanker 202

Alberta air tanker 202. Photo by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

Bombardier has shut down their plant in North Bay, Ontario where they have been finishing the work of building CL-415 air tankers after the aircraft have been assembled in Montreal. The CL-415 and its predecessor, the CL-215, are among the very few purpose-built air tankers, designed from the wheels up to very specifically drop water on fires. Most air tankers used today have been converted after being discarded by the military and passenger airlines.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Bay Today:

…Isabelle Gauthier, the Director of Communications for Bombardier Commercial Aircraft confirmed to BayToday that, “We will not be renewing our lease going forward” at North Bay’s Jack Garland Airport.
The lease ends in April 2016, but Bombardier was required to give at least 90 days notice Gauthier said.

“There are currently no aircraft in production,” explained Gauthier,”It didn’t make any business sense to continue.”

North Bay’s facility was for finishing the aircraft after assembly in Montreal, and three had been completed this year but no more were on the horizon.

“We need sales,” said Gauthier. “We need commitment to continue production.”

She said if sales are made, they may attempt to reopen the North Bay facility but “it’s not like turning on a light switch”.

“Activities are continuing for more sales”, she said, and Bombardier is “keeping the door open” to further involvement in North Bay if there are significant sales of the aircraft in future.

The video below was shot at Santa Fe Dam in January, 2014 where two CL-415s under contract with Los Angeles County were scooping water while working the Colby Fire at Glendora, California, east of Los Angeles.

Tanker 132 arrives in Indonesia

T-132 on Indonesia runway

Coulson’s Tanker 132, known in Australia as “Thor”, has arrived in Palembang, Indonesia with a lead plane (in smoky conditions) to assist with the numerous large fires in the area. Local crews are preparing it for water dropping missions northeast of Palembang.

The photos were supplied by Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, which has the air tanker under contract during the Australian summer but has loaned it to Indonesia for a week or so.

T-132 on Indonesia ramp

T-132 and lead plane in Indonesia

Remotely piloted helicopter to be demonstrated for federal fire agencies

Remotely piloted K-MAX drops water

A remotely piloted K-MAX drops water on a simulated fire. (A screen grab from a video uploaded by Lockheed Martin to YouTube in 2014.)

On Wednesday, October 14, the Lockheed-Martin and KAMAN Corporations will conduct a demonstration of a remotely piloted K-MAX helicopter for the Department of the Interior’s Office of Aviation Services and the U.S. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management division.

The purpose of the demonstration is to assess the feasibility of using this type of aircraft for a variety of missions, including cargo delivery and wildfire suppression at night and during low visibility conditions.

The demonstration will take place in Idaho, but will be open only to the agencies and the media, but not to the public because, we are told, the area selected for the demo has very limited parking and viewing space. We asked a USFS spokesperson if there is an area even some distance from the site where the public could see the flights, but we are still waiting for a reply to that question.

In 2014 a remotely piloted K-MAX performed water drops, as you will see in the video below.

Lockheed Martin configured unmanned K-MAXs delivered thousands of loads of supplies and equipment to soldiers in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014, carrying more than 4.5 million pounds of cargo, sometimes through areas that would be considered unacceptably risky for human pilots.

Unlike Predator drones, which are remotely piloted, the K-MAX helicopters in Afghanistan followed a pre-programmed route using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, and required human intervention only to get started.

Tanker 132 to be deployed from Australia to Indonesia

Tanker 132 performing a demonstration water drop

Tanker 132 performing a demonstration water drop in New South Wales. Photo by NSW Rural Fire Service.

On September 1 Coulson’s Tanker 132 (an L-382G civilian version of Lockheed’s C-130) began an aerial firefighting contract in New South Wales, Australia. Next week NSW will loan it to the government of Indonesia to help fight some of the massive wildfires that have been smoking up the skies, creating health concerns downwind.

Below is information about the deployment provided by Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of the NSW Rural fire Service:

Following a request from Indonesia, the NSW RFS will be deploying Thor, our C130 Hercules Large Air Tanker (LAT), to assist with forest fire fighting in the regions of Borneo and Sumatra this coming week. Following the approval of our Minister David Elliott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, tomorrow morning, a number of senior NSW RFS personnel will join officers from EMA and DFAT and depart for the region to prepare for the deployment. A number of aviation specialists from NSW and other States will also be deployed to support the LAT. The five day deployment is scheduled for departure early in the week, probably Tuesday pending final clearances.

Our VLAT, Southern Belle the DC10, will remain in NSW along with more than 100 other aircraft on call if needed. Should there be an unexpected change in current weather forecast, Thor can be recalled in 24-48 hours. I thank the NSW and Federal Governments and departments for their outstanding efforts in assisting with coordinating and managing this urgent request. Thanks to all involved and best wishes to all those deployed over coming days – stay safe.

California Governor vetoes three bills related to drones

California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed three bills related to regulating drones on October 3. One of them would have given firefighters immunity for disabling hobbyist drones flying over emergency situations.

At a recent congressional hearing U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry James Hubbard said there were reports of 21 drone incursions in firefighting airspace this year — 12 of them grounded aircraft until the drones were removed from the area.

More information is at the Press-Enterprise.

Congressional hearing addresses drone safety

On October 7 the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss how the increasing use of relatively inexpensive drones is impacting aviation safety. A representative from the FAA testified that more than 600 drones have been reported by commercial pilots so far in 2015, which is up from 238 in 2014.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Government Technology:

…A representative from the United States Forest Service also testified at the hearing about incidents between firefighting aircraft and UASs. While Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry James Hubbard said close encounters are not to the same scale as passenger aircraft, the frequency of incidents was enough to prompt concern within his agency.

“Our challenge is incursions. I wouldn’t say that our statistics are significant compared to everybody else’s, but the trend is a little worrisome,” he said in his testimony.

According to Hubbard, fire crews in 2015 saw 21 drone incursions in firefighting airspace, up from only 2 incursions in 2014. Of the 2015 encounters, 12 of them grounded aircraft until the drones were removed from the area.

Because of the low operating elevation of airtankers, Hubbard said UASs pose a real threat to firefighting crews and fire operations in general.

“Our risks are significant, I believe, if something were to happing in the air with a drone and our aircraft,” he said…

San Diego to add a third firefighting helicopter

san diego county helicopter

San Diego County’s Bell 205 A-1 ++. Photo credit: San Diego County Sheriff Department.

San Diego County is adding a third helicopter to its firefighting fleet.

The Bell 205 A-1 ++ will be based at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, California and flown by ASTREA, the Sheriff’s Department aviation unit. It will have a hoist that can rescue injured firefighters and includes a 375-gallon external belly tank for fire suppression. The Board of Supervisors called for the new helicopter in the wake of the May, 2014 wildfires.

ASTREA crew members work with CAL FIRE in the rescue role. While ASTREA deputy sheriffs pilot the helicopter, CAL FIRE personnel operate the hoist and deploy on the hoist cable to assist victims on the ground.

San Diego County already has two other Bell 205 A-1 ++, as well as other helicopters used for law enforcement, including an MD530F, an MD500D, and Two Bell 407s.