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."