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

Stunning UAV video of bushfire

UAV video bushfire near Lithgow, NWS
Still image from a UAV video of a bushfire near Lithgow, NWS

The video below of a bushfire was shot by an unmanned helicopter near Lithgow, a city in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales, Australia. While there are several issues that would need to be addressed to deploy one safely over an active wildfire, the benefits of having live aerial streaming video available to firefighters on the ground could be enormous.

The UAV was piloted by Cividrones.

Predator drone being used on Rim Fire

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft
MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle

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.

This is not the first time that a large Predator-type drone has been used to collect real-time imagery of wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.

Here is an excerpt from the StarTribune with more information about the current use of the National Guard’s Predator:

…While unmanned aircraft have mapped past fires, use of the Predator will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.

The plane, the size of a small Cessna, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, allowing fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire’s direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.

The drone is being flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport, both in Southern California. It generally flew over unpopulated areas on its 300-mile flight to the Rim Fire. Outside the fire area it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.

Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.

Wildfire Today has more information about the Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park that is updated daily with maps and current information.

Oklahoma firefighters may use a drone on wildfires this year

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have been in the news recently. FireFlight UAS, a company in Oklahoma that manufactures small versions of the aircraft, is adding to the hype by marketing their products to firefighters. According to NewsOn6, they have convinced John Hansen, the Director of the Oklahoma Council on Firefighter Training, the vehicles could provide valuable intelligence during suppression of wildfires.

Here is a video report about the UAV.
NewsOn6.com – Tulsa, OK – News, Weather, Video and Sports – KOTV.com |

Concept for UAV air tanker

In December, 2009, Wildfire Today covered a patent application filed by John A. Hoffman for an air tanker, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), that would be transported by a mother ship and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground, and after dropping retardant on the fire, 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”.

NitrofirexThanks to a comment by Jerome on a recent article here about FAA approvals for the use of UAVs, we are now aware of a similar concept, this time by Nitrofirex, which appears to be based in Spain. Much more information is available about the Nitrofirex system than Mr. Hoffman’s idea.

Multiple Nitrofirex UAVs would be transported in a large mother ship 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 mother ship.

According to the company the system could also be used:

  • “To combat a nuclear, biological or chemical emergency
  • To act on meteorological phenomena.
  • To combat pests or to spray crops in remote or inaccessible areas.
  • For night time fumigation of drug plantations.”

We were not able to find any specifications about the aircraft regarding retardant capacity, speed, range, or cost.

Nitrofirex screen grab
Nitrofirex UAV air tankers. Screen grab from the video.

Assuming that the cost, firefighter safety, and design issues are solvable, the only portion of the concept that troubles me is the assumption that an air tanker could, without a pilot either on-board or at a remote location, effectively drop retardant in the exact location where it was needed and at an appropriate height above ground. In flat terrain over a slow-moving fire this might be possible, but in mountainous areas it would be a challenge. Especially if a “squadron” of them were released at the same time.

What if…. an orbiting aircraft or a ground-based firefighter a safe distance away had a laser designator which the UAV could use as a target? Much like the military does for smart bombs and missiles. Terrain-following radar such as that used in the F-111C could make the drops more accurate and effective.

The company has developed a video which explores the UAV air tanker concept.

FAA approvals for the use of UAVs

FAA approvals for drones
FAA approvals for drones. Map by Electronic Frontier Foundation.

We ran across an interesting map put together by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that displays locations where the FAA has issued permits authorizing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones in the United States. Here is a link to an interactive version of the map with more information.

Below we have pasted some information from the map with a few details about land management agencies that have had these permits. Two of them have expired, and two are still active.
Continue reading “FAA approvals for the use of UAVs”

Helicopter Association meets in Boise

The Aerial Firefighting and Natural Resources Committee of the Helicopter Association International (HAI) held a meeting Monday through Wednesday of this week in Boise, Idaho. According to the HAI, 75 members attended, with much of the group’s time devoted to helicopter operations under contract to the federal government for wildland firefighting support.

Presentations were made by Dennis Pratte, manager of the FAA’s General Aviation/Commercial Division, on public operations conducted by commercial operators on contract to a government agency; and by Frank Gladics, former senior staff member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on legislative issues relative to aerial firefighting.

Other agenda items included unmanned aviation vehicles (UAV), governmental economic crises, and wildfire aircraft operations.

The next meeting of the committee will be on March 5, at HELI-EXPO 2013 in Las Vegas.