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.

13 thoughts on “Unmanned K-MAX helicopter demonstrates dropping water on a fire”

  1. Could be a good idea


    One needs to autorotate…then watching from a TV screen VS a Mark One eyeball will be a deciding factor


    Loss of electronic signals ……then one may see a myriad of issues to include a magnesium meltdown

    It’s a good idea overall……..but seriously needs to be tested by Lockheed without ANY intereference from the land management agencies

    Like an IATB for UAV rotary …….Gotta a plan for that already?

    Leave the flying and curriculum development to Lockheed and no duplication to “LMA standards” UNTIL thoroughly proven. This newer tech will challenge the typical “LMA operational control ” issues thyey may have

    Even then, contracting this ship will not be cheaper than hiring a manned or PC…”personned up” rotary wing ship

    There will be a cost recovery for man and materiel….count on it!!

  2. As an Air Tactical Group Supervisor can I tell this unmanned K MAX to contact Firefighter Betsy in Division D and tell Betsy I’m enroute. Or better yet, instruct the K-MAX to take a different route to the dip site and that they are number two at the dip site. Or can the K-MAX tell me its too turbulent to continue doing drops (since the K-MAXs are among the first to sit down due to turbulence????? I just want to know!!!!

  3. Back in the Saddle,
    Yes, to all three questions. You will simply be communicating via the remote operator, not a pilot in the cockpit.
    But don’t think I’m supporting the idea; I’d prefer a breathing pilot in my operations. I see the sense of unmanned aircraft* in high-risk combat operations, but not in firefighting. If the risk to human life is that great, the operation should have been shut down already.

    *UAVs may have a beneficial use for detection/mapping purposes.

  4. Given a chance and since Lockheed and the Marines have been doing this little exercise for the last 3 plus years

    Going from Marine resupply missions to other missions ought not be a problem

    Wildland fire sometimes overthinks missions and ” stuff” and go on to say a company doesn’t understand the “wildland aviation environment.”

    You would be suprised of what they really DO understand

    How do you suppose miltary and civilian aircraft design buld and application came about?

    Wild land fire ain’t rocket science………otherwise you would have all this aviation applications in fire sewed up by now

    1. Nobody is debating that it CAN be done. The question is: why would you want to?
      Back in the Saddle raises a great, if obvious, point: unless there is a ground crew working beneath any bucketing aircraft, the mission is largely ineffective.

    2. Perhaps if the wild land fire agencies had unlimited development budgets like the military they would “have had these aviation applications in fire sewed up.”
      But we don’t, instead agencies have been forced to beg, borrow and contract out to lowest bidders, using refurbished, barely FAA certified aircraft. Perhaps if money had been consistently provided over the last 30 years for development of purpose built fixed wing aircraft to the Federal Wild land Fire Agencies the tanker fleet would not be a ghost of what it was.
      On more ‘minor’ point: when aircraft are grounded on a fire due to unsafe flying conditions it also means air operations are completely ineffective, so using the argument that un-manned aircraft could fly during unsafe conditions is pointless, un-manned aircraft would be grounded for the same reasons manned aircraft are grounded, limited visibility, high winds, etc.

  5. Night time UAS ops wouldn’t conflict with other aircraft and there aren’t a lot of folks on the ground to worry about.

    If it can work a fire at night, it fills in a missing piece of the job. it’s worth a hard look.

  6. Unless you have firefighters aggressively working hot spots, holding line with the water drops you are wasting taxpayer dollars. If you are going to fly at night, you need folks on the ground to make it worth the time and money.

  7. It’s interesting how Lockheed Martin and the NUAIR consortium suggest the unmanned system (including use of the “Indalgo”) will work in support of fire operations without having tested it on wildfires. I wonder if LM is considering how the unmanned system will integrate effectively into aerial ops when multiple helicopters and airtankers are working an incident together, and how the system will provide enough awareness for an operator to monitor terrain, fly in windy conditions, watch out for other aircraft, process simultaneous communications, etc. I think Lockheed Martin needs to understand those aspects and more (or if they do they should publicize it) prior to purporting the viability of their system for fire fighting. And before anyone gets their panties in a bunch…aerial operations on a wildfire are as much art as science. The visual and physical aspects of flying in a fire environment that real pilots base their actions on may not be transferable to an unmanned system.

  8. I came across two articles this week about a current US Navy deployment mixing manned and unmanned rotary wing assets:

    “The departure marks the first time the multi-mission MH-60R Seahawk helicopter and the MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned autonomous helicopter are deployed together aboard a littoral combat ship.”

    source: http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/11/19/first-manned-unmanned-detachment-deploys-aboard-littoral-combat.html


    “That drone will work in tandem with a standard piloted helicopter, the Navy’s workhorse MH-60 Seahawk.”

    source: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/nov/17/fortworth-firescout-deployment-helicopter-drone/

    Perhaps there may be some lessons learned from this deployment that would be of use to the wildfire aviation community in terms of the feasibility and interaction of manned and unmanned systems working together?

  9. I would imagine the lessons learned could be applied

    I would also imagine that even if it was proven through the military, the folks in the LMA world would re demonstate

    So maybe the idea is not to go off half cocked creating ones own program but test this out with already PROVEN techniques rather than starting a whole new program….as I have said before….. Let Lockheed prove it and then LMA buy a contract package

    This stuff still will not be cheap, even if the dreamers bring it in-house

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