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Feds Check Out Unmanned Aircraft For Fighting Wildfires

Consumer drones look like child's play after you get a look at the unmanned, water-dropping helicopter that was pitched to the federal government Wednesday. The K-MAX chopper is the largest of several remotely-piloted firefighting aircraft to get a tryout this year.

It was suitably smoky out when the dual rotor K-MAX powered up for a large audience of federal firefighting managers. A late season wildfire in Boise County supplied the unplanned haze.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin and helicopter maker Kaman supplied the glimpse into unmanned aerial firefighting.

The helicopter looks like it’s been squished from the sides. It demonstrated water drops and ferried supplies up and down a mountain. All of the missions were flown by remote control from a ground station set up next to the helipad near Lucky Peak Reservoir. A pilot sat in the one-seat cockpit ready to take the controls just in case, but nothing went wrong.

Fighting fires 24/7

Kaman Aerospace vice president Bob Manaskie said the helicopter can fly through thick smoke or darkness, situations that force current firefighting aircraft to stay on the ground.

“We can fight fires 24/7 unmanned or optionally manned,” Manaskie said. “That’s the advantage. You can get water on the fires 14 or 15 extra hours per day where a manned system can’t.”

Manaskie said the U.S. Marine Corps operated two K-MAX helicopters in the unmanned configuration in Afghanistan to resupply remote outposts at night. K-MAX shuttles replaced dangerous convoys on the ground.

“We’ve tweaked it to where it is very safe,” Manaskie explained. “When we put it in Afghanistan initially, the Marines wouldn’t put people underneath the aircraft as it was hovering because they were afraid unmanned it would fall down. By the end, there were tons of people under there hooking up stuff. They got very confident with it. And that’s what it is.”

Manaskie said a K-MAX helicopter, assembled in Connecticut, costs about $7.5 million. The chopper can lift up to 6,000 pounds, the equivalent of its own weight. The manned version was first certified for flight in 1994.

More recently, Lockheed Martin partnered with Kaman to add the remote control capability.

'It’s pretty monumental'

U.S. Forest Service assistant director for aviation Art Hinaman says he saw “a lot of potential” at the initial pitch.

''I truly believe that unmanned K-MAX and the other optionally-piloted aircraft will become a tool that is regularly used by the firefighters to support them over time.''

“It’s fascinating that it can be done, that the technology is there,” he said. “For us, the ability to do that without having to risk a pilot in low light level conditions, poor visibility and weather you just can’t fly -- and the guys on the ground need the help -- that’s pretty monumental.”

Hinaman and other fire managers at the demo said the federal government would probably rent, not buy.

“I don’t think money will be the final barrier,” Hinaman said. “I mean sure, there would be a little more expense I believe to have it operating more hours with the unmanned configuration, but not drastically more. I think for the bang you’re going to get out of that buck, for a little bit more money you get a lot more utility out of an aircraft you already have on the fire.”

The K-MAX helicopter is the third remotely piloted aircraft to get a federal tryout this season. The first two tests used smaller, winged aircraft to identify and map hotspots. Boeing subsidiary Insitu showed off a repurposed military reconnaissance drone called the ScanEagle over a forest fire in Olympic National Park. Then Textron Corporation demonstrated its Aerosonde Mark 4.7 surveillance drone over a different forest fire north of McCall, Idaho.

So how soon will drones routinely help at wildfires? Brad Koeckertiz is the unmanned aircraft program manager with the Department of Interior. He figures it will take a few more years to integrate drones into all the other routines found at wildfires.

“I truly believe that unmanned K-MAX and the other optionally-piloted aircraft will become a tool that is regularly used by the firefighters to support them over time,” Koeckertiz said.

The Oregon and Washington state forestry departments also expressed interest in testing drones over real fires this year, but fire season was too hectic for them to get around to it.

There is an element of good drone-bad drone to this. More than a dozen times this year, unauthorized hobby drones flew too close to active wildfires in the American West. That forced temporary halts to aerial firefighting operations.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.