Lockheed Martin has been testing the usage of drones to autonomously put out fires. Last year, the company put on a semi-autonomous demonstration that included an unmanned K-MAX cargo helicopter along with a small quadrotor. And last month, Lockheed put on another firefighting demonstration that was even more autonomous than before.
Often, when large drones are put into action, the Federal Aviation Administration sets up restriction zones around their proximity. This can be troublesome for traditional pilots, who often have to divert their planes to travel around the drones.
If drones ever hope to autonomously fight against fires on a regular basis, they will need to not interfere with the paths of traditional airplanes. For now, any drone missions to combat fires will still need human intervention. Still, much of the process can be done without humans.
At the recent firefighting demonstration, both the K-MAX helicopter and the Stalker XE fixed-wing drone made use of experimental UAS traffic management capabilities. This allowed for real time communication with local air traffic controllers. The program includes an interactive component that allows the drones to respond to the basic instructions of the controllers.
The Stalker XE drone made use of infrared cameras in order to identify the fire. From there, it relayed its position to the fully autonomous K-MAX helicopter, which put out the fire with a perfectly-targeted water drop.
Spotting fires and putting them out should at some point become an excellent task for drones. Fires need to be located as soon as possible, and it is believed that autonomous drones will eventually be able to locate fires faster than humans. With infrared equipment, spotting fires should be a breeze for drones. The current problem is making them operate in conjunction with piloted airplanes, which need to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
The Stalker XE drone can fly for up to eight hours at a time in both day and night and in virtually any weather conditions. The same can be said for the K-MAX helicopter. This versatility makes these drones exceptional candidates for being used in firefighting operations.