Pilot-Optional Helicopters Could Be the Future of Fighting Wildfires

Interior Department

The Interior Department’s been working on a plan to expand its aerial firefighting efforts from daylight-only to a 24-hour cycle.

Imagine this: It’s midnight and your house is on fire.

You call 911 and the firefighters arrive, but they tell you they can’t start dousing the flames until morning. They can monitor the blaze, but right now it’s too dark to use the trucks and hoses. While that’s highly unlikely to happen with a house fire, it’s roughly the situation the Interior Department faces every time it fights a wildfire.

Quelling wildfires is typically a two-front affair involving firefighters on the ground and a variety of aircraft dropping water and retardant materials from the sky. But when the smoke gets too thick or the sun goes down, it becomes unsafe for pilots to fly and those aerial efforts come to a halt.

Today, planes and helicopters can only fly about eight hours a day on average, leaving ground responders to fend for themselves the other two-thirds of the time.

But the agency’s top aviation expert wants to keep helicopters flying around the clock using decades-old military technology that essentially turns them into massive, fire-fighting drones.

As director of Interior’s Office of Aviation Services, Mark Bathrick has devoted much of his time to getting unmanned aircraft in the skies over public land. Over the last decade, he helped grow the agency’s UAS program from sporadic experiments to a hundreds-strong fleet that today plays a critical role in agency operations, from monitoring federal land to responding to natural disasters.

Small drones have become a particularly useful tool when it comes to fighting wildfires. Outfitted with infrared cameras and heat sensors, they can see through smoke and relay information in conditions that would otherwise be too dangerous for human pilots.

Now, Bathrick sees “optionally piloted helicopters” as the next iteration of unmanned aerial firefighting. The aircraft, which can be flown either by a human pilot or remote operator, would combine the data collection power of small drones with the ability to actually act on that information, he said.

The technology could allow the department to run aerial operations 24-hours a day while simultaneously keeping responders safer on the front line and enabling a data-driven approach to fighting fires, according to Bathrick. It could also drastically reduce the financial impact of wildfires, which cost the government and local communities billions of dollars each year, he added.

“We think this is really a potential game changer,” Bathrick told Nextgov. “You’re tripling the amount of available support from the air to the firefighters. [Optionally piloted helicopters] would fill a gap we’ve never filled in 88 years of flying on fires.”

No Pilot, No Problem

The idea of flipping helicopters between manual and remote control might sound novel, but the technology has been around for decades. The military began experimenting with optionally piloted systems during World War II and in recent years the Defense Department spent some $123 million refining the technology for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan, according to numbers provided by Interior.

It’s also important to note most aircraft can become optionally piloted, Bathrick said, so instead of buying a brand new fleet, agencies could retrofit existing helicopters with technology that allows for remote flight.

Bathrick spent 25 years in the Navy before joining Interior, and as a test pilot, he oversaw a fleet of optionally piloted planes, some dating back to the Vietnam-era. He said the Pentagon’s investment has made the technology so robust it would take an additional $10 million for Interior to develop and test the system for fighting wildfires.

And given the massive financial impact of wildfires, that upfront cost could lead to significant savings in the long run.

In 2017, the government responded to more than 71,000 wildfires. The blazes burned across nearly 10 million acres, destroying some 11,000 homes and businesses, and leading to at least 50 deaths. Agencies spent more than $3 billion on wildfire suppression last year, but that figure doesn’t include the costs of preparing equipment and personnel, rehabilitating burnt land, rebuilding homes or the economic impact of lost land and businesses.

Interior estimates every 10 percent reduction in the time it takes to contain a wildfire would save almost 1 million acres of land and $300 million every year. And according to Bathrick, optionally piloted helicopters is an easy way to kick suppression efforts into top-gear.

“Given the continuing aggressive fire years that we see, I think we need to use all the available technology and tools that are out there,” he said.

With those systems in place, daytime firefighting would proceed as usual, he said, but at the end of the eight-hour stint pilots would leave the cockpit and helicopters would return to fight the wildfire in the unmanned configuration. Infrared cameras would allow remote operators to see through smoke and darkness, so helicopters could theoretically continue pouring water and retardants on the blaze until pilots return the next day.

More Optionally Piloted Perks

Flying continuously would not only fill the 16-hour gap its aerial firefighting efforts but also lets the department fight the fire while its weakest, Bathrick said. Usually, the night and early morning bring higher humidity, lower temperatures and less wind, making for optimal firefighting conditions, but as of now, human pilots can’t fly during those hours.

“It’s like you have the enemy on the ropes, and you’re not attacking them,” Bathrick said. “That’s just something as a military guy I can’t really comprehend.”

Roughly one-in-five wildfires are also discovered during times when crews aren’t in the air, according to Interior, and Bathrick suspects many of those so-called “spot fires” end up growing into larger, more expensive blazes because they have hours to grow before responders arrive. If helicopters were in the air all day, operators would likely notice and quash smaller burns before they get out of hand.

When fighting wildfires, aircraft do a lot more than drop water and retardant. Firefighters on the ground rely on pilots to keep them stocked with food, water and equipment, and if the flames start closing in, they need aircraft to evacuate them. Even though ground operations slow down at night, but even so, falling trees and loose still lead to firefighter injuries and deaths, Bathrick said. Optionally piloted helicopters could provide supplies and rescue support around the clock.

Today, Interior bases its daily operations on wildfire data that could be 18- to 24-hours old, Bathrick said. Small drones have begun to close that information gap, he said, but optionally piloted helicopters would increase the flow of real-time into the department and allow officials to make more timely decisions.

Operators could also use that data to monitor the success of their drops. While military weapons are rigorously tested to show their impact under different conditions, Interior has never measured the impact of retardant and water drops on wildfires, said Bathrick. That lack of information limits the department’s ability to properly allocate supplies and means they’re potentially wasting resources on ineffective drops.

“I can tell you how many gallons [I drop], but I can’t tell you what that did in a quantifiable fashion on the outcome of the fire,” Bathrick said. “The small drones can do some of the same [data collection]...but this [helicopter] is a drone that’s actually doing the drop and can measure its own effectiveness.”

The Flight Plan

In 2015, Bathrick organized a demo in Boise, Idaho, where Lockheed Martin showed its optionally piloted helicopter could deliver some 4,500 pounds of cargo to different locations in a single flight. It was also able to drop water from hundreds of feet in the air within five feet of a target. 

But after two industry-funded demonstrations when it came time for Interior to begin investing in the technology, the program largely came to a halt, Bathrick said. The agency began pouring funds into expanding its small drone fleet and optionally piloted helicopters were placed on the backburner.

Even so, he said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is “very pro-unmanned aircraft” and building off technology investments made by the Pentagon. Industry experts said it would cost the agency about $10 million to finish testing optionally piloted helicopters and integrate them within the department’s broader aviation efforts, according to Bathrick. If that happens, he said the agency would probably begin exploring small-scale contracts and eventually adopt the technology more broadly, just as it did with small drones.

“It’s not unnatural to have an idea that’s really a great idea and it takes some time to get it into the field,” Bathrick said. “As a department, we’re still very interested in moving forward.”

Funding for optionally piloted helicopters don’t appear anywhere in the department’s proposed budget for fiscal 2019.