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The K-MAX firefighting aircraft will aim to increase safety for firefighters on the ground and in the air. Lockheed Martin Photo
More than 40 representatives from federal wildland fire agencies and media gathered at Lucky Peak Helibase just outside Boise, Idaho, on a smoky morning earlier this month to witness an unmanned Kaman K-MAX firefighting demonstration.
The aircraft, outfitted with redundant onboard equipment allowing it to operate both in line of sight and remotely via satellite, used a Bambi bucket to demonstrate spot drops and trailing drops, then demonstrated a cargo delivery and return from ridges and confined areas surrounding the base during the 2.5 hour demonstration. Throughout the event, both remote control and autonomous piloting were demonstrated, as well as electro-optic (EO) high definition, infrared and thermal imaging camera views to demonstrate the aircraft’s ability to identify hot spots and the effectiveness of drops.
An onboard safety pilot had the ability to switch the aircraft to manual should an issue arise. Without a temporary flight restriction (TFR) or Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the aircraft couldn’t fly completely unmanned for the demonstration.
“This technology will allow us to better support our firefighters on the ground, both with suppression and direct logistical support,” said Mark Bathrick, director of aviation services for the Department of the Interior. “We see it as a great example of prior tax payer investment that will pay dividends.”
Created through a partnership between Kaman and Lockheed Martin, the unmanned K-MAX operated in Afghanistan for the U.S. Marine Corps between 2011 and 2014. The aircraft, originally contracted for six months, stayed on to serve more than 2.5 years, delivering 4.5 million pounds of cargo and equipment to troops. Flying pre-subscribed GPS routes, the aircraft mainly operated in the dark with no external lighting along traditionally hazardous ground routes, taking no fire in its entire tour, said Lockheed Martin.
Upon completion of the mission, Lockheed Martin was approached by the Department of the Interior: Would this technology work to help fight fires?
Lockheed and Kaman provided an initial demonstration in November 2014 at the FAA’s testing grounds in New York for firefighting agencies. Critical firefighting feedback lead to several modifications and tactical changes, the results of which were demonstrated at the Lucky Peak Helibase.
“As a career firefighter, I’ve seen time and again the calls for aerial support when visibility is down or the wind is too high to safely operate,” said Brad Koeckertiz, UAS program manager for the Office of Aviation Services at the Department of the Interior. “Putting this technology in place will increase safety for people on the ground and in the air.”
The demonstration was slow and methodical, often with water dropping higher than it would in a real scenario due to safety, said Lockheed officials. Monitors on the ground showed views from the helicopter, including crystal clear views through the smoke and haze, as well as what the remote control operator was seeing on his screen.
The operator flew the helicopter using two Toughbook laptop computers and a PlayStation controller. “The choice of controller was actually strategic,” said Christopher Zonio, flight test engineer at Lockheed Martin and the aircraft’s original operator with more than 1,000 hours of flying K-MAX remotely. “When I trained Marines, most had instant familiarity because they played PlayStation. They’d say, ‘I know this. Just tell me what the buttons do.’ The learning curve was fast for most of them.”
Zonio’s computers and controller worked through two satellite uplinks and a remote control antenna for line of sight. Additionally, he sent directions to the helicopter, such as a GPS location that could be called in by a firefighter on the ground, and the aircraft then flies autonomously to the point.
“This aircraft can operate as manned when it is safe, and as unmanned when visibility drops or night falls, allowing the fire suppression and supply delivery to continue,” said Art Hinaman, assistant director of aviation, fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). “We’d not need special permission to fly it to a fire as long as a pilot is onboard, then once in the TFR, we can go unmanned, saving time and money.”
The Department of Interior hopes to fast-track FAA approvals to allow the aircraft to operate in fire TFRs as soon as next summer. However, the issue of price and who would make the investment wasn’t discussed directly in the presentation.
A new K-MAX off the line, in a manned-only configuration, is around US$7 million, said Bob Manaskie, vice president and general manager of air vehicles and MRO for Kaman. However, a retrofit for an existing K-MAX is possible, with the aircraft needing to go back to the factory for tail boom strengthening, then on to Lockheed Martin for technology additions. The price, he said, depended on the sensors the operator ordered. Lockheed Martin quoted between $11 to $15 million for a new aircraft.
Both Hinaman of the USFS and Bathrick of the DoI said the agencies had no plans to purchase the aircraft; they’d be contracting with private companies much like they do today. However, both were unable to discuss what that would look like as terms and conditions of contracts for a yet-to-be FAA-approved aircraft were unavailable. It remains unclear what would motivate current firefighting aircraft contractors to make such an investment, or if they’d be able to receive adequate insurance coverage for the operation.
Firefighters assigned to the helibase and helitak were not allowed to talk to press at the demonstration to share their thoughts after seeing the aircraft in action. Hinaman said he recognized the importance of working with firefighters during the process. “It’s important to get them involved in seeing this aircraft in action and hearing their input,” he said.
When asked about the potential of working with skilled firefighting pilots to transition them to ground operators of the unmanned K-MAX in order to use their inherent knowledge of firefighting, Bathrick responded: “We don’t see the need for skilled (firefighting) pilots as it is pure math with a UAV. It flies to a precise point along a prescribed route. It can operate more precisely than any pilot, and I can say that — I am a pilot,” he said. “We are getting critical feedback from firefighters and pilots. We’re here to support them.”
The Department of Interior plans to work with Lockheed Martin to test the aircraft on a very controlled prescribed burn before moving on to testing it on a real forest fire, Bathrick said.
The Unmanned K-MAX has a 2.75-hour endurance with an option to add an auxiliary fuel tank to extend the range another 45 minutes. The aircraft weighs in at 5,145 pounds empty and can lift up to 6,000 lbs. on the hook for a maximum gross weight of 12,000 lbs., with external load, at sea level. At 5,000 feet, and 15 degrees C, lift performance decreases to 5,663 lbs.
The demonstration was funded by Lockheed Martin and hosted by the Boise National Forest.