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.

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.

K-MAX on the Kootenai

K-MAX helicopter
K-MAX assigned to the Kootenai National Forest. Photo by Melinda Horn.

This K-MAX helicopter assigned to the Kootenai National Forest in Montana has an unusual paint job. It looks like it just flew into a retardant drop.

N414 is registered to Central Copters out of Bozeman, Montana.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Melinda and Steve.

Radio interview about USFS air tankers, and an Rx for a new air tanker

Tanker 118 on the Lowell Fire
Tanker 118 on the Lowell Fire, July 25, 2015. Photo by Matthew Rhodes.

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, was interviewed by KVPR about air tankers. It began with a discussion about the HC-130H, Tanker 118, a USFS owned/contractor operated air tanker that has been used for a few weeks working out of McClellan Airport. She was very well-spoken and knowledgeable, and generally did an outstanding job.

However, she said “…nobody manufactures off the line air tankers”, which illustrates the apparent bias of the USFS against the purpose-built “SuperScoopers”, the CL-215 and the CL-415 used by the dozens in other countries in North America and Europe. The USFS contracted for their first one last year.

The Air Tractor single engine air tankers could be considered purpose-built. They were first designed as crop sprayers in 1973, but the conversion from dropping pesticides to fire retardant in 1990 was not a huge leap and the mission profiles are similar.

Air Tankers at Dryden
Air Tankers, mostly purpose built CL-415s, and other firefighting aircraft at Dryden (Ontario) Regional Airport in mid-June, 2015. They are owned by the Province of Ontario, one of the 10 provinces in Canada. Photo by Chris Sherwin, via Mike. Click to enlarge.

And don’t forget the Russian-built Be-200. I consider it a hybrid, since it was designed as an amphibious scooping air tanker, but has provisions for carrying passengers when its not suppressing fires. This may have been a compromise during the design process, when a high-ranking politician could have said, “But what if it could also do this, and this….”. Much like the convoluted process of designing the Bradely Fighting Vehicle. So many additional functions were added that it could no longer efficiently and safely function in it’s intended role; transporting troops.

While we’re on the subject of purpose-built air tankers-

I am impressed by the design of some purpose-built aircraft that do not have a single wasted or unused cubic foot. Think about the K-MAX and the Sikorsky S-64 (Erickson Air-Crane) that are built to do one thing — lift heavy loads. No compromises there. Looks that only an aircraft engineer could love, but very efficient. The Air Tractor is another pretty good example.

K-MAX, side
K-MAX at Custer, SD, July 10, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

K-MAX, front

An air tanker is not required to have a cavernous unused space inside like Tanker 910 below. Imagine how much the weight and air resistance could be reduced if an air tanker was not built around space to carry 380 passengers. This is not a criticism of the DC-10 air tankers. They selected one of the best air frames available at a reasonable cost and figured out a way to turn it into a very effective and useful firefighting tool.

Tanker 910, a DC-10 air tanker
Interior of tanker 910, a DC-10, at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I’d like to see the K-MAX engineering team design from scratch a fixed wing air tanker built around the following components, glue them together, and then configure them to be airworthy, capable of flying at least 350 mph, and able to take off from Ramona, California with a full load of retardant on a 90 degree day;

  • 5,000 to 10,000-gallon tank,
  • cockpit for two (no passengers; possibly a third seat for an inspector pilot or trainee),
  • fuel, and
  • engines.

Unmanned K-MAX helicopter demonstrates dropping water on a fire

Last year the U.S. Forest Service had eight K-MAX helicopters under exclusive use contract to help suppress wildfires. Lockheed Martin configured unmanned K-MAXs to deliver 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.

On November 6, 2014 a team of Lockheed Martin and Kaman unmanned aircraft demonstrated its ability to aid in firefighting operations. During the demonstration, the remote controlled Indago quad rotor effectively identified hot spots and provided data to an operator who directed the unmanned K-MAX helicopter to autonomously extinguish the flames.

In one hour, the unmanned K-MAX helicopter lifted and dropped approximately 3,000 gallons of water onto the fire. A Skycrane could almost do that in one drop. This seems like a small amount of water for the K-MAX and appears to be about five drops, after dipping water from a nearby pond. Usually the K-MAX can carry about 680 gallons, not quite meeting the minimum capacity of 700 gallons for a Type 1 helicopter.

“The unmanned K-MAX and Indago aircraft can work to fight fires day and night, in all weather, reaching dangerous areas without risking a life,” said Dan Spoor, vice president of Aviation and Unmanned Systems at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training business.

“This demonstration signifies the potential for adapting proven unmanned systems and their advanced sensors and mission suites to augment manned firefighting operations, more than doubling the amount of time on station,” said Kaman Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Neal Keating.

The K-MAX autonomously dipped water from a pond and delivered it to the fire location. The helicopter was manufactured by Kaman and outfitted with an advanced mission suite by Lockheed Martin. Using its electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) camera, K-MAX can locate hot spots and designate the location to its operator for water drops at that location. K-MAX has proven the ability to autonomously conduct resupply operations with the capability to deliver to four different locations. Its flexible multi-hook carousel is suited for attachments such as water buckets, litters and medical supplies.

K-MAX helicopter at Custer
K-MAX manned helicopter at Custer (South Dakota) Airport, July 10, 2012, Photo by Bill Gabbert.

K-MAX helicopter converted to unmanned aircraft system

K-MAX, side
K-MAX at Custer, SD, July 10, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Of the 38 K-MAX helicopters that were built, eight are on exclusive use contract with the federal government for wildland firefighting. The U.S. Forest Service likes them because they feel like they can claim they are contracting with Type 1 helicopters even though they almost but not quite meet the minimum standards for Type 1 status, and for the fact that they are much less expensive than fully qualified Type 1 helicopters. The eight ships are operated by Central Copters, Heliqwest, Mountain West Helicopters, Rainier Heli International, Swanson, and Timberline.

Two other K-MAX helicopters have been converted for the military by Lockheed Martin Corporation and Kaman Aerospace Corporation into an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capable of autonomous or remote controlled cargo delivery. Its mission: battlefield cargo resupply for the U.S. military. The two ships have flown more than 1,000 missions in Afghanistan and hauled more than 3 million pounds of cargo that would have otherwise been transported by trucks, which are vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. One goal is to save lives by reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices on cargo convoys.

The helicopters were sent to Afghanistan in November, 2011 for an initial, limited deployment, but have been extended several times. Naval Air Systems Command has decided to continue using the aircraft there indefinitely.

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

It remains to be seen if UAS or UAV aircraft could feasibly be used on fires to drop water or deliver external loads.

K-MAX, front

K-MAX hauls brush and timber from urban area in Utah

K-MAX at Sandy, Utah
K-MAX at Sandy, Utah. Screen grab from KSL video.

A K-MAX helicopter is being used in an urban area near Sandy, Utah to haul away brush and trees that hand crews cut in an area near homes. Thanks to a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the crews spent about 800 hours cutting and spraying brush to reduce the threat from wildfires. KSL has a video and still images of the project.

The K-MAX in the picture below from July 10, 2012, is operated by Swanson Group Aviation and was assigned to Custer, SD last year,

K-MAX helicopter, N161KA
K-MAX at Custer, SD. Photo by Bill Gabbert