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.