Battle Asset May Douse Homeland Flames
An unmanned helicopter successful in war zone logistical missions soon could be used to extinguish wildfires.
After a successful three-year logistics run in Afghanistan aiding the U.S. Marine Corps, an unmanned aerial asset may be repurposed for battles of a slightly different kind, if officials from the Department of the Interior have their way. The unmanned version of the K-MAX medium-lift helicopter, used in the war zone to ferry cargo, might find a new mission in the United States—fighting wildfires under the purview of the federal agency tasked with protecting the country’s natural resources.
“Think about the size of the Department of the Interior,” offers Brad Koeckeritz, the national unmanned aircraft specialist at the department. “We have 10 bureaus and cover more than 20 percent of the land mass of the country. We have a large variety of missions that aren’t being accomplished now or that maybe could be accomplished better, faster, cheaper with a UAS [unmanned aerial system]. As far as for the fire side of the house, we’re really in the beginning stages of looking at how we’re going to employ this type of technology to assist the firefighters on the ground.”
Using an unmanned asset on wildfires opens up opportunities otherwise mostly unavailable, such as flying missions during nighttime hours or into heavy smoke. Additionally, the platform can be used for operations such as surveillance, data gathering and fire mapping, says Jim Douglas, director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Department of the Interior. “The UAS provides us the potential for getting information that we’ve been unable to get otherwise or certainly to get it more efficiently and cheaper,” Douglas says. “There are some potential payoffs for us there.”
The Department of the Interior has used unmanned aircraft since 2006 for land mapping and a few scientific missions, making it the fourth-largest federal agency behind the Defense Department, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to hold certificates of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration for unmanned flight. “We continue to expand our nonfire unmanned aircraft program for a whole host of different missions, from wildlife surveys to high-definition photometry and mapping and volcano research,” Koeckeritz says. But the agency has never employed the asset to battle fires or fly resupply missions for firefighters on the ground.
An unmanned version of Kaman Corporation’s K-MAX platform first deployed to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps in 2011 to support logistical missions (SIGNAL Magazine, May 2012, page 44, “Robocopters Reduce ...”). “We moved 4.5 million pounds and conducted approximately 2,000 sorties,” says Jon McMillen, Lockheed Martin’s business development director for the K-MAX program. “It was part of what they called a ‘military utility assessment’ that was intended originally to be a six-month mission to see if cargo flown by UASs was feasible. It ended up being three years of moving equipment around the battlefield and doing it operationally. It wasn’t just a test any longer.”
Flying the cargo meant that hundreds of supply ground forces who otherwise would be out on convoy missions did not have to be exposed to roadside bombs, among the greatest threat to U.S. and coalition forces in the Afghanistan War. The sorties replaced roughly 900 cargo and security vehicles—eliminating about 46,000 hours that troops had to spend off military posts or bases. “This was the first time that it was deployed in the military arena, and it performed very, very admirably,” McMillen says. “We had a 94 percent mission capability rate and 1.4 maintenance man-hours per flight hour, which for a developmental system is quite unheard of.”
The K-MAX performed well during firefighting tests at Griffiss Air Force Base in New York, dropping roughly 24,000 pounds of water on a controlled fire. Officials want to begin with limited technology demonstrations as they gear up for the 2015 fire season, which typically runs from May through October.
“We’re looking really to fill some gaps where we traditionally haven’t flown,” primarily nighttime missions, Koeckeritz says. “Safety is the No. 1 [concern]. The reason we don’t fly at night is because of the hazard to the pilots. ... The risk-benefit isn’t really there. Now, if we have the ability to take an unmanned asset to accomplish the same or similar-type missions without risking human life, there is the potential for us to be quite effective on those incidents.”
The unmanned systems extend capabilities otherwise performed by manned aircraft. “Today, for most firefighting missions, all that a pilot can fly is typically about eight hours a day,” McMillen explains. “They have to fly in visual flight conditions, which means not at night and not whenever there is too much smoke in the area. That significantly limits how much time they can be providing both fire suppression and doing resupply to the firefighters who are on the ground. By doing an unmanned system, the visual flight rules no longer are there, and you can have the system fly 24/7.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night,” he continues. “The sensors on board, the [electro-optical] and the [infrared], actually give you a better view of what the fire is doing. Now you can see the infrared picture of where the hot spots are, you can identify them, locate them and then accurately hit them with your fire suppression or your retardants, which provides a much greater capability. You can continue doing that throughout the night, where typically there is no aerial support or firefighting going on during those hours.
“It’s a 6,000-pound helicopter that can lift 6,000 pounds,” he adds. “And they’ve been using [the manned helicopter] at some of these very austere commercial environments for quite some time. We didn’t have to worry about any reliability concerns with the platform. It was ‘how do we install this unmanned kit and then use it for a different mission in a different environment?’ That’s how we got to a platform that performed so well over in Afghanistan. ... It was sent over to show how logistics missions could be automated and get people off of the roads.”
Beyond putting fire retardant on a live fire, demonstrators at Griffiss conducted precision resupply missions, furnishing smoke jumpers on the ground with needed equipment. Quite possibly, the K-MAX could be the first unmanned asset to fly people, McMillen adds. A military-certified helicopter basket designed to carry 16 people can be rigged to the K-MAX to ferry people to safety. “We actually have a heli-basket that would allow us to do personnel extraction to a safe location, even during nighttime hours, where human pilots, without night vision qualification, could actually fly,” he points out. “So when everything else is grounded, you could fly in a UAS with this heli-basket to do personnel extraction. It would be a first of its kind.”
The K-MAX can be more of an autonomous vehicle rather than an unmanned platform, McMillen explains. “With a platform like this, what we’ve been able to do, more or less, is automate all the scenarios around it,” he says. “The ground operator is able to upload [data], either at the beginning of the mission, which he typically does, ... and he also, during flight, could upload a different mission. This is more of an autonomous system versus a remotely piloted aircraft. Once a plan is uploaded, the aircraft will execute that plan. So the ground operator is really just monitoring the status and ensuring everything is flying as it should, but he’s not actually flying the aircraft.
“That frees him up to do other things—to be able to control the payload,” he continues. “Whenever you upload your plan, there are many contingency plans that are uploaded as well, and that gives you multiple ways to deal with contingencies. How are you going to deal with lost [communications]? How are you going to deal with failures? What plans must it execute in order to do that?” The answers are programmable, he says.
But as with any reconnaissance platform, the data dump from such missions can produce too much information, which can be overwhelming and unproductive. “There is a tremendous amount of data coming down the pipeline from that aircraft, and we need to have our workflow set up so that when the aircraft is ordered and shows up on an incident, we’re actually turning all of that information into a decision rather than just having the aircraft boring holes in the sky,” Koeckeritz explains. “The data management side is as big of a hurdle as the technical side of actually flying the airplane.”
A huge payoff in the future will be this reconnaissance data gathering, Douglas says. “It’s a matter of processing that data when it comes down, getting it to a ground station, getting it to the people on the ground,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of internal work to do to figure out how to make these things work very well for us. It’s a combination of the technical capabilities ... and then our internal fire-management business process.”
Interior Department officials plan for a mixed fleet of organic and contracted capabilities, designing the model for unmanned assets to mirror the department’s manned aircraft fleet. Currently, the agency owns and operates 90 manned aircraft and contracts out for another 1,200 more. “I would foresee us doing a very similar model with unmanned aircraft,” Koeckeritz says. “We will always have an organic capability within the department where we have our own operators trained to fly these simple, inexpensive aircraft. When we start moving into larger UASs, particularly things that are going to provide longer duration, reconnaissance-type platforms, we’ll probably go into a contracting model, which is really what we do within the department now with our manned aircraft.”
“We see a lot of potential for this technology, but we want to be very careful and systematic about evaluating it from standpoints of safety, operational effectiveness and cost-effectiveness,” Douglas emphasizes, “rather than just jumping in with a new toy.”