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.

NASA testing UAV to detect fires

Mike Logan NASA UAV
NASA researcher Mike Logan plans to use this small unmanned aerial vehicle to detect fires at the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and North Carolina as part of an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by David C. Bowman of NASA Langley.

In November we ran a story about how Mike Logan, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, put a group of students to work designing and building an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that could help to detect wildfires in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp. Now Mr. Logan has another UAV that has a range of about eight miles which can stay aloft for an hour before the batteries need recharging.

From NASA:

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NASA’s research in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) may soon provide a means for early detection and mitigation of fires in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, a nearly 50,000-square-acre region centered on the Virginia-North Carolina border.

NASA’s Langley Research Center, in nearby Hampton, Virginia, has signed a one-year agreement with the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to test small UASs for the detection of brush and forest fires. The research is part of the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s UAS Integration in the National Airspace System (NAS) project.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating the feasibility of airborne unmanned platforms and their ability to offer a safer and more cost-effective alternative for surveillance of potential areas of interest immediately following thunderstorm activity,” said Great Dismal Swamp Refuge Manager Chris Lowie. “The agency hopes to see a significant decrease in cost to survey the Great Dismal Swamp, as well as a reduction in time to detect nascent fires, which could potentially save millions of dollars to the taxpayer in firefighting costs,” added Lowie.

Mike Logan, the research lead at Langley, came up with the idea after a forest fire in 2011 that lasted almost four months and cost more than $10 million to extinguish. Smoke from that fire, which was caused by a lightning strike, traveled as far north as Maryland only three years after another $10-million blaze in 2008, according to FWS.

“I made a phone call to the local fire captain after days of inhaling peat bog smoke,” said Logan. “I learned most fires are caused by lightning strikes and the only way they can spot them is by hiring an aircraft to do an aerial survey of the huge swamp. So I figured why not use a UAV as a fire detector?”

After approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the team at Langley plans to fly a lightweight UAS equipped with cameras and transmitters over the wildlife refuge.

“One is an out-of-the-nose camera that can see smoke plumes as they are rising,” Logan explained. “The other is an infrared camera housed in the body of the plane that points down. It can find hot spots by detecting heat signatures.”

Although the aircraft can fly as fast as 40 miles an hour, when used in this capacity it will be flown slower while it transmits video, allowing individuals on the ground to observe what is occurring in the live video. The transmissions can be viewed on a laptop computer in a mobile ground station.

Logan says the drone, which weighs about 15 pounds and has an almost six-foot wingspan, has a range of about eight miles and can stay aloft as long as an hour, before the batteries need recharging. The aircraft also can be programmed to fly on its own, but a safety pilot will monitor operations during the tests.

“This kind of application for unmanned aerial systems shows just one public benefit,” said Dave Hinton, Langley associate director for UAS technologies and applications. “They can be used to detect fires or locate people who are lost.”

Drones may be used over wildfires in Oregon and Washington next year

ScanEagle drone
Boeing’s ScanEagle. Boeing photo.

From KPLU:

State forestry departments in Washington and Oregon had hoped to try out drones this summer to provide reconnaissance at wildfire scenes. But neither firefighting agency managed to pull it off. Now both plan to try again next year.

State foresters in southern Oregon acquired a remote-controlled helicopter at the beginning of fire season, but discovered they couldn’t legally fly it without pilot’s licenses. The training and paperwork are now in progress.

Meanwhile, a leader in the Northwest’s unmanned aircraft industry has launched a separate project to develop a nighttime wildfire reconnaissance capability. Eric Simpkins of Bend, Oregon, said he’s lined up four drone providers willing to donate flight time to demonstrate the new technology for wildfires.

“Fires do change during the night. Winds come up, move the fires a lot,” Simpkins said at an industry conference in Warm Springs, Oregon. “It is very hard for fire managers to know what is going on during hours of darkness and it inhibits their ability to get a quick start the next morning.”

This past July, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources got emergency approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to deploy a drone at a wildfire north of Wenatchee. Boeing subsidiary Insitu provided one of its ScanEagle unmanned aircraft to use for free. But the experiment was scrubbed at the last minute.

A state spokesman says they want to try again next summer on a tamer wildfire.

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Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Robert.

Drone hinders aviation on Sand Fire

A privately operated drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle) caused concern on the Sand Fire south of Placerville, California on Sunday. The person that was controlling the aircraft and getting video footage of the blaze was told by authorities to stop because of the potential danger to helicopters, lead planes, and air tankers flying over the fire.

A video shot from the drone was uploaded to YouTube showing that the aircraft was directly over the fire, which could have been a serious hazard to helicopters and air tankers operating at 50 to 180 feet above the ground.

There are reports that Air Attack, when informed of the drone, came close to grounding all firefighting aircraft until the threat could be mitigated. However the operator was found and instead, the drone was grounded.

Last month the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior issued an Interagency Aviation Safety Alert about the hazards of unmanned aerial vehicles operating near wildfires.

A person would think that a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) which was probably in effect over the fire would prohibit all non-authorized aircraft including drones under 400 feet, from operating in the area. If so, then penalties could be applicable. A pilot of an airplane can lose their pilot’s license for 90 days or so if they bust a TFR. Of course a doofus who buys $1,000 worth of drone and does stupid things with it has no license to begin with.

This problem will get worse before it gets better. There will be more and more consumer-grade drones flying around and keeping them out of fire areas is going to be very difficult.

As we have said before, Air Attack needs to live up to its name and be armed with air to air missiles (kidding!). (EDIT: Or, as we said in a comment, some of the Air-Cranes have a front mounted water cannon that could be very effective, non-lethal [except to the drone], and would not start additional fires!)

USFS and DOI warn about drones on fires

Today the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior issued an Interagency Aviation Safety Alert about the hazards of unmanned aerial vehicles operating near wildfires.

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UAS Hazard

Unmanned aircraft to be banned in U.S. National Parks

The U.S. National Park Service is banning unmanned aircraft from being used in National Parks. Director Jonathan B. Jarvis today signed a policy memorandum that directs superintendents nationwide to prohibit launching, landing, or operating the aircraft sometimes called drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or Unmanned Aerial Systems.

This is considered a temporary solution, asking each park to develop there own prohibition order, until a Servicewide regulation regarding unmanned aircraft can be implemented. That process can take considerable time, depending on the complexity of the rule, and includes public notice of the proposed regulation and opportunity for public comment.

The agency cited some examples of how the aircraft have caused problems in parks. Last September, an unmanned aircraft flew above evening visitors seated in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater. Park rangers concerned for visitors’ safety confiscated the unmanned aircraft.

In April, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park gathered for a quiet sunset, which was interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft flying back and forth and eventually crashing in the canyon. Later in the month, volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.

An article in today’s Washington Post had a lengthy article written after receiving the results of more than two dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

More than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001, a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic, according to a year-long Washington Post investigation.

Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

In other UAV news, Stillwater County, southwest of Billings, Montana, just spent $19,890 on drone which they intend to use in search and rescue scenarios, wildland fires and floods, and to scout rural residences before serving warrants.

(UPDATE June 23, 2014) The Oregon Department of Forestry is also buying a drone, but it will cost about $15,000 less than the one for Stillwater County, MT.

The Predator UAS on the Rim Fire

Predator drone
The 163d Reconnaissance Wing, California Air National Guard prepares the Predator MQ1 for lift off on it’s maiden voyage from Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA) on 25 February 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sergeant Stanley L. Thompson)

(UPDATE at 6:41 p.m. MDT, March 17, 2014)

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has publicized information from two reports about the Unmanned Aerial System, the Predator, used on the Rim Fire. There is a report written by the LLC, and an AAR developed by one of the Incident Management Teams that was assigned to the fire.

One thing is clear. We need to decide on a name. UAS, drone, RPV, or UAV.

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(Originally published at 12:49 p.m. MDT, March 14, 2014)

These videos describe the use of a California Air National Guard Predator unmanned aerial system on the Rim Fire, which burned 257,000 acres in and near Yosemite National Park last summer.

HERE is a link to a 17-second video which can’t be embedded, but it shows the operator’s screen.