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Unmanned helicopter and drone join forces in safer approach to fighting fire

Attacking out of control forest fires from the air with manned helicopters and planes is a technique that has been used for decades, but we are now starting to see what their unmanned cousins have to offer. In a recent demonstration, Lockheed Martin has shown how the unmanned K-MAX helicopter can combine with a quadcopter to battle blazes below. And critically, it did so while keeping Air Traffic Control informed of their every move.

Drones don't tend to mix well with firefighting aircraft. As fires raged across California's Cajon Pass earlier this year, several recreational drones being flown in the area forced firefighting crews to ground their aircraft for fear of midair collisions. On the flip side, progress is being made toward drones that can suppress fires on ships and even ignite and monitor controlled burns.

Whatever role these vehicles come to play in and around fires, it is clear is that their activity will need to be monitored to ensure emergency services can safely perform their job. This is the goal Lockheed Martin is working towards in its latest exercise.

Last year it used the K-MAX unmanned helicopter, which has set altitude and payload weight records for airdrops and been used to deliver cargo in combat zones, to work with a quadcopter to extinguish a contained fire. A quadcopter acted as a scout and was flown remotely over the site to detect flames with a gimbal-mounted electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) imager, guiding K-MAX as it strategically dropped water on the blaze.

This time, using a Stalker XE UAS drone to pick out the hot spots, data and a precise geolocation were provided to the K-MAX helicopter, which then carried out water drops while integrating the operations into the National Airspace System. This was achieved through the company's prototype UAS Traffic Management system, which monitored the activity and communicated it in real time to Air Traffic Control.

"This demonstration represents the path forward for flying UAS in the NAS (National Airspace System) using Flight Service-based UTM capabilities to extend the technology and systems that air traffic controllers know and understand," says Paul Engola, Vice President, Transportation & Financial Solutions at Lockheed Martin.

As K-MAX has a flight time of more than eight hours and can fly day and night in all kinds of weather conditions, Lockheed Martin claims it could potentially triple the amount of time air support is offered to firefighting crews on the ground.

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