Drones vie for role in wildfire fight

K-MAX helicopters (Photo: Lockheed Martin)
K-MAX helicopters (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

This year was a near-record fire season for Alaska and the entire Western U.S. In the Lower 48, aircraft fighting fires were repeatedly grounded when gawkers flying their own drones were spotted in the skies. They’re a danger when they intrude on the airspace, but unmanned aircraft can also be an asset in firefighting and efforts are underway to bring more pilotless aircraft to the fight.

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In Idaho last week, Lockheed Martin, the Interior Department and the Forest Service demonstrated how unmanned K-MAX helicopters might help.

They programmed one to hit certain GPS coordinates, and Lockheed supplied video showing the chopper essentially flying itself over a simulated fire. It scooped buckets of water from a lake and released them over the landscape to create a wet line, then delivered multiple loads of cargo and came back to base.

The K-MAX is a full-size chopper. Some versions are flown by an on-board pilot, but the Marines have used the unmanned model to carry supplies in Afghanistan. John McMillan of Lockheed Martin says the ability of the K-MAX to fly a pre-programmed route allows it to be very precise, and eliminates human variables. That’s important in fighting wildfires.

“Whenever you do line-building you want to be able to hit a spot and be able to create a continuous line of water, to create that barrier,” he said.

Lockheed says, someday fire crews might climb into an unmanned aircraft for emergency evacuation.

The Interior Department hopes to test the K-MAX over a prescribed burn, and maybe try them in a real fire as soon as next summer.

Bill Gabbert fought fires for both the Forest Service and the National Park Service for more than 30 years. He says the utility of the $10 million K-MAX is promising but still uncertain.

“Well so far they haven’t used it on an actual fire. So it’s certainly not a game-changer yet,” said Gabbert, now publisher of a website called Fire Aviation.  “Maybe in a decade or two, if they advance the technology a great deal and work out some issues that need to be resolved, such as the safety of firefighters on the ground, it could be a useful tool.”

Gabbert says the K-MAX could be flown by a pilot during the day, and then fly autonomously once the sun goes down, because most firefighting aircraft can’t work in the dark.

“The fixed wing air tankers do not drop water at night, so adding some water-dropping helicopters at night would be very helpful,” he said. “The fires move more slowly at night, so being able to attack them from the air while they’re moving slowly could be very helpful.”

Nighttime is when smaller unmanned airplanes took to the skies over the Funny River Fire, a blaze that burned through 200,000 acres of the Kenai Peninsula in 2014.

“So at 11 p.m. we would launch these unmanned aircraft and we would fly all night,” says Marty Rogers, director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Rogers also led the team that launched  40-pound ScanEagles  to gather intelligence over the Funny River fire.

“At 0700, when the new firefighter shift came on board they could actually go directly to those hotspots, which were GPS referenced, and we provided infrared imagery of those locations.”

Rogers says the technology has proved its worth in firefighting. But, when the Sockeye Fire raged in the Susitna Valley this summer, the drones weren’t deployed. Rogers says it points to one of the biggest limitations on using the technology in firefighting: With so many agencies involved, managing what’s in the sky over a fire is incredibly complex.

“The use of unmanned aircraft right now as it relates to wildfire has much more to do with there being methodologies that are well understood between the agencies, processes between the agencies, to allow for the safe integration of the unmanned aircraft into the airspace,” he said.

Lack of that kind of planning apparently doomed an earlier Forest Service attempt to deploy drones. The agency spent $100,000 in 2007 to buy two Sky Seer aircraft. The equipment sat unused for at least seven years. The Forest Service said it had trouble getting FAA permission to fly them.

Rogers says the K-MAX helicopter might be most useful in delivering supplies to firefighters. He says he’s also got his eye on an unmanned amphibious water bomber that a Spanish company is testing in Iceland.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.