Opinion: Congress needs to be careful about banning all parts for drones made outside the U.S.

October 21, 2020   |   1:44 p.m.

drone wildland fire
Drone Amplified photo.

By Carrick Detweiler

The end of summer means the heart of fire season for many Americans. You’ve probably read about a fire somewhere in the United States; so far this year, more than 43,000 fires have burned in states throughout the country, with more than 7 million acres destroyed or damaged nationwide and more than a thousand acres locally in Nebraska. In practical terms, these fires have ravaged property, homes and lives, leaving behind burned out businesses and discarded family memories.
Those on the front lines working to protect lives and livelihoods need every tool available to fight back and keep the fires at bay. For many working to head off the next big fire, it also means managing lands at high risk for the next devastating blaze through prescribed burns. And over the past several years, firefighters have embraced a new tool to help them manage fires: drones.

My company, Drone Amplified, is a Nebraska small business that is helping firefighters across America. We founded our company based on pioneering work conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Our product, Ignis, is a sophisticated drone-based system that works in concert with fire-protection agencies to set fires in areas that have been identified as high risk. These burns effectively eliminate the fuel wildfires rely on to spread out of control. They are critical tools for federal, state and local agencies charged with reducing fire danger.

Right now, drones are helping state and federal officials in California battle fires throughout the state. Officials in neighboring Colorado used our Ignis system to perform backburns to contain the Pine Gulch fire, which is the largest fire in Colorado history. Drones have become part of everyday wildfire management and prevention.

drone wildland fire
Drone Amplified photo.

Drones are key to wildfire management not because they are exciting and futuristic. It’s because they are safer and cheaper than the traditional approach using manned helicopters. Since July of this year alone, at least five people have died in helicopters and airplanes flying aerial firefighting missions. By contrast, an unmanned drone can fly through smoke or at night, eliminating such risks. And a United States Department of Agriculture study found that using a drone with our Ignis system for fire prevention work costs $1,800 a day, compared to $16,000 a day when using a helicopter.

Despite the success we’ve seen with drones in controlling and fighting wildfires, recent policy proposals risk reversing the success we’ve seen in using drones for wildfire management. For example, a key bill under consideration in Congress would ban certain drones based on where they are made. Under these proposed policies, a majority of federal, state and local firefighters couldn’t use many of their drones even if a single part was made in China, grounding much of the deployed drone fleet and leaving a gaping hole in the resources first responders use today.

These proposals stem from fear that drones made in China actually send data to China and, more specifically, the Chinese government. Of course, it’s right to be concerned about data security. We have to know the products we rely on are secure and safe. But recently, we’ve seen studies from independent third-party testers that demonstrate how drones from a leading drone manufacturer, Chinese-based DJI, do not transmit data to China. And that’s important to us. Our business, and the work of so many firefighters, counts on drone technology from around the world. Knowing that our data is protected is absolutely critical. Without that knowledge, we wouldn’t do business with DJI or any other company. After all, we’re a business that works with firefighters and law enforcement every day. We care deeply about protecting our nation’s security and the privacy of user data. If we didn’t trust it, we wouldn’t use it.

One way to better assess the data security risks associated with drones is to consider the creation of government-issued standards to protect data and make sure user data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands — standards that would apply to any drone no matter where it was made. This should be complemented with investments in American companies that are developing the next generation of drone technologies.

drone wildland fire
Drone Amplified photo.

As a Nebraska startup, we’re passionate about our work and our innovation. We want to be recognized for creating something truly meaningful. We want to grow and contribute to the Nebraska economy. But we can’t do that if Washington sets policy based out of fear, with no consideration for the real-world impacts. We need Washington to reconsider these proposals that would ban drones because of their country-of-origin. Instead, policymakers in Washington should set national standards that would apply to everybody, whether the technology is made in China, France or the United States.

Drones may seem like gadgets used by amateur pilots and aviation geeks. And that would probably be true. But for many of us, they are literally saving lives. Washington needs to let us continue what we and many others are doing to protect people and communities from wildfires.

Carrick Detweiler received his Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a faculty member in the Computer Science and Engineering Department in 2010. In 2015, he co-founded Drone Amplified to commercialize technology developed at UNL. He is currently the CEO of Drone Amplified which is redefining fire management practices by enabling safe, efficient and low-cost aerial ignition and fire analytics.

A look at the Ventura County helicopters

Ventura County helicopter
The first time that Ventura County Copter 2 was used on a wildfire, June 10, 2020. Photo by John Carman.

Ventura County, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, has an air unit which is a cooperative enterprise of the Fire District and the Sheriff’s Office. The unit has four Bell UH-1 helicopters and one Bell Long Ranger. In addition, they purchased three military HH-60L Blackhawk helicopters in order to convert them into FIREHAWKS to be used for fighting wildland fires, personnel transport, search and rescue, law enforcement, and medical evacuation.

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
Ventura County Copter 5. Ventura County is converting military HH-60L Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS. VCSO photo, Capt. Romano Bassi January, 2019
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 8. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 8. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copters 6, 8, 9, and 2. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 3. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit

Preliminary report released for fatal SEAT crash in Idaho

The pilot was killed September 22, 2020 southeast of Emmett, Idaho

October 16, 2020   |   3:56 p.m. MDT

NTSB preliminary report T-857
Image from the NTSB preliminary report on the September 22, 2020 crash of a SEAT in Idaho.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a preliminary report on the fatal crash of a single engine air tanker (SEAT) in Idaho.

The Air Tractor AT-802A crashed September 22, 2020 while working on the Schill Fire, approximately 2 miles southeast of Emmett.

The pilot, Ricky Fulton, perished. The aircraft, Tanker 857, was owned by Aero S.E.A.T. Incorporated and was on an on-call (CWN) contract with the Bureau of Land Management. The aircraft was first registered July 10, 2020, FAA registration number N836MM.

Typically it takes 8 to 16 months for the NTSB to issue their final, complete report with an analysis of the causes of a crash.

This was the sixth firefighting pilot and the third SEAT pilot to be killed in the United States this year. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia. In addition, one person was killed August 8 in the crash of a CL-215  based in Portugal while battling a fire in Spain.

Below is the complete text from the narrative section of the report about the September 22 crash.

On September 22, 2020, about 1830 mountain daylight time, an Air Tractor AT-802A, N836MM, was substantially damaged when it was involved in an accident near Emmett, Idaho. The pilot was fatally injured. The airplane was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 aerial firefighting flight.

Witness conducting firefighting operations, adjacent the accident site, reported that the accident airplane, a single engine air tanker (SEAT), descended and made an approach similar to the previous SEATs that were dropping fire retardant. The witnesses said the airplane passed over the top of the ridge and descended into the valley, however, the pilot did not drop the fire retardant as previous SEATs did. The witnesses stated he heard a brief application of engine power as the airplane began to ascend over rising terrain at the pilot’s 12’oclock position. The airplane subsequently impacted rising terrain near the peak of the ridgeline.

A video provided by a witness captured the accident sequence. The recording showed the airplane descend over an intermediate ridgeline and into a valley (see figure 1). About 3 seconds later, the airplane momentarily returned to level flight before it pitched to a nose-high attitude. The airplane subsequently impacted rising terrain approximately 80 feet below the ridgeline.

Examination of the accident site by a Federal Aviation Administration inspector revealed that the airplane impacted rising terrain. The wreckage debris path continued from the initial impact point over the top of a ridgeline, and extended into a small ravine. The airplane came to rest approximately 100 yards from the initial impact pointe on a heading of 040 degrees. All major structural components of the airplane were located throughout the wreckage debris path. The wreckage was recovered for further examination.

(end of report)

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

Helicopter lineup for Australia this fire season

The helicopters will be phased in over the next several weeks.

 Updated October 16, 2020   |    8:17 a.m. MDT

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. Chris Matei photo.

The first of six Erickson Air-Crane helicopters that will assist firefighters in Australia arrived at the Sydney airport October 12. “Gypsy Lady” was unloaded from an Antonov 124-100 after spending the summer fighting fires in Greece. It has since been reassembled and flown to Bankstown, New South Wales where it will begin its mandatory availability period on November 1.

The other five are also coming from Greece, but will be receiving less deluxe treatment lashed down inside the holds of ocean-going freighters like they were in April on the way from Australia to Greece.

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. NSW RFS photo.

Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said on October 15 the positioning of the Air-Cranes will be the same as last year:

  • Bankstown, New South Wales, HT730, N189AC, Gypsy Lady, starts 11/1/2020
  • Bankstown, New South Wales, HT739, N247AC , Jerry, 12/1/2020
  • Essendon, Victoria, HT341,  N154AC, Georgia Peach, 12/2/2020
  • Moorabbin, Victoria, HT342, N194AC, Delilah, 12/23/2020
  • Brukunga (Adelaide Hills), So. Australia, HT743, N218AC, Elsie, 12/17/2020
  • Serpentine (Perth), Western Australia, HT740, N243AC, Marty, 12/20/2020

There will also be three Sikorsky S-61N ships and a Sikorsky S-76B owned and operated by Coulson:

  • Colac, Victoria
  • Mansfield, Victoria
  • Ballarat, Victoria; night-flying capable, along with the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter for night supervision and intelligence gathering.
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady being reassembled  at Sydney. Kestrel-Erickson photo.

In addition to the lineup for the Type 1 helicopters, there is news about a couple of smaller Type 2 helicopters in Australia. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) has purchased two new Bell 412 helicopters. One of them, like Gypsy Lady, received deluxe transportation (compared to a cargo ship) when a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A hauled it from Vancouver International Airport, Canada, to Richmond, NSW on September 15.

Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter to Richmond, NSW for the NSW Rural Fire Service. RAAF photo.
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter to Richmond, NSW for the NSW Rural Fire Service. RAAF photo.

Bell Helicopter Textron Canada, based in Mirabel, Quebec since 1986 has manufactured more than 5,000 aircraft.

Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
NSW Rural Fire Service’s new Bell 412 helicopter after arriving at Richmond, NSW. RAAF photo.

Australia to have six large air tankers during the 2020-2021 bushfire season

The list includes: B737, Q400, RJ 85, and C-130

Air Tanker 141, C-FFQEQ, Q400
T-141 (C-FFQEQ) Q400AT – Refueling at Majuro, Marshall Islands in August , 2020 while en route to Bundaberg, Queensland for the 2020-2021 bushfire season in Australia. Photo Credit Brendon Sutton.

Wildland fire authorities in Australia expect to have at least six large air tankers working on exclusive use arrangements during the 2020-2021 fire season which is already underway down under. Five will be under contract and one, a B737, is owned by the New South Wales government.

Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) said on October 13, “We will continue to monitor how the season develops and consider the need for additional large airtankers if required.”

A year ago Australia started the 2019-2020 fire season with a plan to have five large air tankers, but when the fire activity grew to unprecedented levels, NAFC added two in November, 2019 (a DC-10 and a C-130Q) then in January, 2020 added four more (two DC-10s and two MD-87s).

Currently active:

  • B737, Bomber 210  (formerly Tanker 138), N138CG, purchased from Coulson and now owned by New South Wales Rural Fire Service, at Richmond, NSW. Year round.
  • Q400AT, Bomber 141, C-FFQE, supplied by  FieldAir/Conair, at Bundaberg, Queensland. Started September 1, 2020.
  • RJ85, Bomber 166 (Tanker 166), C-GVFT, supplied by FieldAir/Conair, at Dubbo, New South Wales. Started October 1, 2020.

Due to start November 1, 2020:

  • B737, Tanker 137, N137CG, supplied by Coulson, at Richmond, NSW. The contract allows Coulson to substitute another aircraft, their “new” Tanker 132, a C130H, depending on the status of the overlapping fire seasons in Australia and the US.

Due to start December 2, 2020.

  • RJ 85, Bomber 391, C-GVFK (?), supplied by FieldAir/Conair, at Avalon Victoria.

Due to start December 16, 2020

  • C130Q, Bomber 390 (Tanker 131), N130FF, supplied by Coulson, at Avalon Victoria.

According according to a September through November outlook from the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre much of Australia may be looking at a slower than average fire season for the next two months.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) was formed by the Australian States and Territories in July, 2003 to provide a cooperative national arrangement for combating bushfires. It facilitates the coordination and procurement of a fleet of firefighting aircraft that are readily available for use by State and Territory emergency service and land management agencies across Australia.

Tanker 138 becomes Bomber 210 in Australia and gets new livery

NSW RFS' B-210 737 air tanker
NSW RFS’ B-210, formerly known as Air Tanker 138. October 9, 2020. Matthew Tregear photo.

The 737 air tanker that New South Wales Rural Fire Service purchased from Coulson received a new paint job over the Australian winter. Besides needing to be identified as Bomber 210, there is a report that flying through ash during the incredibly busy 2019-2020 bushfire season stripped away enough paint to justify the new livery.

After a career of hauling passengers for Southwest Airlines, the aircraft made its first drop on a fire in August, 2019.

It was repainted by Flying Colors Aviation in Townsville, Queensland and made its first drop of the 2020/2021 bushfire season a few days ago.

Flying Colors Aviation Facebook postThe design of the livery on the aircraft when it was converted into an air tanker by Coulson was based on a Boeing concept seen on some of their new aircraft.

Boeing 777-8X
Boeing 777-8X. Boeing image.

Videos and photos of firefighting air tankers

SM-100AT Air Tanker
Stavatti introduces the SM-100AT air tanker. A clean-sheet-of-paper, new design, the SM-100AT will deliver 4,000 gallons of fire retardant.

The video below shows the effects of air tanker drops in timber. The first part shows a dozer line or road on the edge of the Glass Fire in Northern California. Then you will see where red fire retardant dropped by air tankers has slowed the advance of the fire. When it can be done safely, firefighters on the ground or on dozers will need to construct a bare-earth fireline where the fire has burned into or through the retardant. Aircraft dropping water or retardant do not put out a fire, they can only slow the spread, and only if the wind is not very strong.

Continue reading “Videos and photos of firefighting air tankers”

Two new single engine air tankers are being designed

One version is expected to be available in 2021

October 3, 2020   |   1:45 p.m. MDT

Firecatcher F-45 air tanker
Firecatcher F-45. Firecatcher photo.

Three companies are collaborating to design and manufacture two new versions of single engine air tankers (SEAT).

A UK company, Arcus Fire, is coordinating the projects which are designed and built by two New Zealand companies, Flight Structures Ltd and Pacific Aerospace.

Firecatcher F-25 air tanker
Firecatcher F-25. Firecatcher photo.

Flight testing is scheduled to begin soon of the smaller of the two aircraft, the F-25, which is capable of carrying up to 660 gallons. It is a modification of Pacific Aerospace’s Super-Pac XL utility aircraft. The companies are working on CAA/CASA/FAA Certification and expect the air tanker will be available in 2021. It will be powered by a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-140A engine.

Construction is in progress of a clean-sheet larger SEAT, the F-45, with a 1,188-gallon water or retardant tank. It will have a high wing and a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F engine. Initially it will be a Restricted Category aircraft, but eventually will be certified in the Standard Category with both cargo and passenger variants. The first flight is expected in 2023 with deliveries planned to start in 2024.

fuselage Firecatcher F-45 air tanker
A portion of the fuselage of the Firecatcher F-45. Firecatcher photo.

The cargo version will have a large cargo door with a flat floor cabin that can take three LD3 shipping containers with a 5,500 lb maximum payload capability. The aircraft will have a cruise speed of up to 190 knots (218 mph) and a 1,000 nautical-mile maximum range. The 19-passenger cabin will have full stand-up headroom and double abreast single-aisle seating.

FlightGlobal reported the pricing will be $4.2 million for the F-45 and $2.2 million for the F-25.

Firecatcher F-45 air tanker
Firecatcher F-45. Firecatcher photo.

Neither the F-25 or the F-45 are amphibious, but they can be outfitted with a scooping tube, or as Erickson describes it on their Air-Crane helicopter, a  “scoop hydrofoil attachment”. A Blackhawk operated by HP Helicopters also has one of these devices.

Erickson Air-Crane scooping
SDG&E’s Sunbird Air-crane helicopter, scooping water at Lake Hodges, shortly after it was delivered in August, 2010. SDG&E photo.