Self-flying firefighting choppers could keep humans out of harm's way

People are concerned, with good reason, about the impact artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to have on employment over the coming years. One application of technology that no one can seriously argue against, however, is its use in carrying out jobs in which humans would otherwise be put at risk.

This latter point is an area of exploration for the folks at Lockheed Martin, who last week carried out a demonstration showing how multiple autonomous flying vehicles can work together to help fight wildfires — an extremely dangerous task which last year cost the lives of six firefighters.

“We were trying to show how unmanned technologies can really change the game,” Jon McMillen, business development lead of Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX project, told Digital Trends. “A lot of work has been done with drones, but we wanted to [demonstrate] that not only can they be used for public benefit, but also linking multiple systems together. What we did was to take four different UAVs — two small and two large — and show how they could be used in both firefighting and search-and-rescue missions.”

At its impressive demo, a Lockheed Martin quadcopter drone called Indago first used infrared and visible light cameras to spot a fire. It then passed the information on to autonomous cargo chopper K-MAX, which used a hanging bucket of water to help contain the fire.

In a related demo, a surveillance drone was used to spot a person potentially trapped by a forest fire. It then conveyed the information to an unmanned helicopter called SARA, which was able to locate the individual, find a landing spot, and touch down for the rescue mission.

As McMillen explained, the use of such autonomous technologies can have a big impact — not just in keeping human firefighters safe in dangerous conditions, but also by extending the ability to operate to 24 hours per day.

“Today whenever manned aviation assets are fighting wildfires, they are unable to fly in smoky conditions, and can fly only in visible light conditions,” he said. “That limits the actual flying time they can be deployed to eight hours per day during these fires. If you’re able to extend that into the night, or in smoky conditions, you get a three-times multiplier in terms of benefits.”

Humans are not going to be cast aside completely, though. Far from it. “What we’re transitioning to is [humans playing] more of a supervisory role,” McMillen said. “You let the computer carry out the flying part of the operation and then allow a person on the ground to monitor the system’s progress.”

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