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Nobody’s at the controls of this self-flying, fire-fighting helicopter

Every year, catastrophic wildfires tear through millions of acres of land across the United States, wreaking havoc not only on the communities within the burn zones, but also on thousands of human lives as well. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 2015 has been one of the most devastating calendar years for fires in the last decade, losing an estimated 9.3 million acres of land as of the middle of October. To help combat these disastrous occurrences, Lockheed Martin has recently partnered with the aerospace manufacturer Kaman to develop a fleet of autonomous helicopters capable of fighting fires. What’s even more exciting is that the fleet is nearly fit for service.

Originally developed for use in Afghanistan, Kaman’s K-MAX self-flying helicopter boasts the capacity to hold 6,000 pounds of cargo while flying near sea level, and roughly 4,000 pounds of cargo while operating at a 15,000-foot altitude (where the air isn’t as dense). Moreover, this chopper has the ability to provide round-the-clock air support during wildfire suppression, only needing to stop to refuel or gather more water. Its built-in computer also packs hotspot detection and operates at peak levels even in the harshest of environments.

“This technology will allow us to better support our firefighters on the ground, both with suppression and direct logistical support,” said the Department of Interior’s director of Aviation Services Mark Bathrick at a recent K-MAX field test in Idaho. “The integration of technology that could more than double the time we’re able to provide them with logistical and direct air support could be a game-changer in this mission area.”

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During last week’s demonstration at Lucky Peak Helibase just outside Boise, Lockheed and Kaman displayed K-MAX’s impressive skills. In front of officials from the Department of the Interior and the United States Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation management division, the K-MAX first took off and flew over to a nearby pond to fill a bucket full of water. Once full, the chopper then navigated to an area marked off as an invisible wildfire and proceeded to accurately drop the water along a line which would effectively stop the blaze from spreading. Lockheed and Kaman repeated this process several times, displaying the K-MAX’s continued accuracy and dependability.

K MAX

“We owe it to the firefighters on the ground to continually explore technologies that improve their safety and best support their efforts,” Bathrick continued. “We see it as a great example of prior tax payer investment that will pay dividends.”

As of now, there’s no clear timetable for when exactly the government intends to send Lockheed and Kaman’s innovative helicopter into the field. With successful testing now under its belt — and considering how incredibly beneficial it could be — it likely won’t be long before the K-MAX is on the front lines helping curb ravaging wildfires across the country.