Fighting Wildfires with Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting

Advancing Technology Aerial Firefighting Through Massive Multimodal Mobility

By: Dawn Zoldi

The United States (U.S.) is on fire… literally. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, this calendar year the nation has experienced 39,955 wildfires, two thousand plus more than the ten-year average (37,675). Thus far, 104 large fires have ravaged 2.4 million acres. Calfire lists the still-burning California Dixie fire as the second largest in the state's history, having already destroyed 1,109 structures in its path. Two organizations, the Advanced Mobility Collective ("The Collective") and Colorado's Center of Excellence Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting ("COE"), have partnered up to combat this problem together, using networked advanced technology.

Todd Spain, Executive Director of The Collective, who considers himself, "a lifelong technology guy whose mission is to make technology work to improve the world" founded The Collective as a non-profit just a few years ago. Before that, Spain spent nearly twelve years in senior roles at Cisco Systems, followed by a 10-year stint consulting with growth stage companies' executive teams helping them to solve challenges and bring new products to market. His goal for The Collective: bring the nascent mobility community together to solve real world challenges in healthcare and disaster management and resiliency, including wildfires, using a unique techno-social approach to achieve economically sustainable operations.

The COE, on the other hand, serves the community by conducting critical firefighting research and development (R&D) and operational testing. It also provides training, certifications and operational assistance. Led by Miller, a self-proclaimed "pragmatic technologist" who in his former position with the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, was the first in the country to start a public safety drone program in the 2008-2009 timeframe, the Center focuses on moving public safety towards the state of the art.

"We realized early on that detection was a valuable place to invest state tax dollars. We purchased two Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA), single-engine turboprop manned Pilatus PC-12s, which was the easier path than trying to buy large unmanned systems at the time," Miller explained. "Ironically, we use the same cameras and sensors on the PC-12s that are on the Predator or Reaper drones. We launch them with infrared sensors to look for hot spots, so we can enable rapid initial attack to catch the fire before it grows."

Getting to that end state, and more, is exactly why The Collective works with the COE. The two now drive technological advancements to improve firefighting practices and influence innovation across the public safety community. Miller reminisced, "We used to think of forest fires as a forest management event. Now with urban sprawl, wildfires have become a public safety event. Typically, forest management groups have been ill-equipped and ill-trained to handle the scope of the problem. States are finally starting to invest in the public-safety capabilities for wildland firefighting because it's a threat that is not going away. It keeps increasing, and we are all caught playing catch up."

The threat persists because the environment has changed. Many wildland fires are caused by extreme weather. In Colorado, it's dryer and warmer. The fire season lasts about a week after the snow melts in May until the snow falls again in November. It used to last only from August and September.

To address the problem, the Collective and the COE hope to deploy the Forest Tech Center (FTC) in Colorado. The FTC will facilitate assembling complex systems of systems solutions to prove that various technologies can work together as a force multiplier for wildfire prevention and response operations. These systems could include drones, robotics, IoT sensors, weather systems, high altitude platforms and communications infrastructure. "Once we prove out the capability in one risk area, we will expand in two vectors: 1) the geographical footprint; and 2) by continually adding technical capability and use cases that are being addressed," elaborated Spain. Colorado has twelve counties at high risk for wildfires. The mid-term goal would be to expand any system The Collective and COE develop, to all twelve counties. Spain offered, "Once we do that, there's no limit to where we can help out. We seek a borderless solution."

The partnership allows both organizations to focus on what they do best. The COE plans to channel public safety operators, helping The Collective understand their challenges, so as to seek targeted opportunities to assist. The Collective will gather together the right players in industry, called The Collective Partners, to create the needed solutions.

The Collective Partners currently include a diverse set of companies and organizations, ranging from communications companies, such as RoGO Fire, weather experts such as QS-2, analytics businesses including the SAS Institute and LifeScale Analytics and airspace/mission deconfliction groups like Focused Support. The Partners also include VTOL and drone companies like Causey Aviation Unmanned and Talyn.

The Collective's vision directly fits the COE's mission, as every one of its R&D projects has a network and connectivity component to it. Evolving the fidelity and speed of that information, and from situational awareness to spatial awareness, remains high on Miller's to-do list. "It's about knowing the where of the what. We do a fantastic job communicating the 'what' over our voice comms network because we spent a lot of money converting from analogue to digital and firefighters are trained to be good, tactical communicators. But literally, to put retardant on target, someone calls out 'Hey Tanker 20, do you see that pond by that rock down there?' Then we hope that Tanker 20 sees that same pond. Having a lat/long of where folks are looking is the next big piece to solve." Network connectivity will be a big part of moving from identifying a hot spot with an MMA, manned or unmanned, to the rapid attack phase, laying water or dirt down on it.

The team's plan is simple, yet complex. The first step is to put the right communications, physical and data infrastructure in place. Next, the team hopes to bring in robotics, land and air autonomous vehicles to prioritize mitigation efforts. Miller noted, "With a tech-enhanced understanding of weather and vegetation, we will be able to spot fires early with air-based assets, cameras with ML/AI capabilities and quickly put those out with rapid deployment of assets that are manned and unmanned," Spain agreed and added, "On the back end, folks like Ben can use sensor technology and drones to fully understand the damage and reseed, where necessary, with fleets of VTOLs. The challenges are growing daily with wildfires, especially in the Wildland Urban Interface. Technology will help us to manage nature at scale."

On many levels, these two professionals have a personal stake in the success of their endeavor. Last summer, the East Troublesome fire in Colorado blew up to 200,000 acres, with 170 mph winds and tornadoes in its own weather, spewing fireballs over the Continental Divide towards Estes Park, came within one half mile of Spain's house. "This summer, we saw a pair of expensive helicopters picking up giant bags of mulch and seeds and dropping them into the forest. I can't think of a more expensive way to do that," he quipped. "We need to have a mobility fleet mentality. A fleet of eVTOLs could do this cheaper and more precisely, especially if drone technology has first informed where the most damage occurred, where the issues might be with watershed and flooding, etc. We need to create a massive multimodal mobility model to do this right."

The Collective now works to put the physical and virtual infrastructure in place to help carve a path for success for many drone and advanced air mobility ecosystem companies, while also benefiting the public. "Solving real world problems will guarantee a bright future," predicts Spain. "We are determined to drive equitable solutions, with neutral infrastructure, so that many organizations – and all people – will reap the benefits of networked mobility."

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