For those brave hearts who do not associate optionally-piloted helicopters and UAVs with The Terminator movies’ computer-controlled human-hunters, the idea of using unmanned aircraft to help people makes good sense.
Apparently the engineers at Lockheed Martin are not haunted by visions of Skynet; at least not while on the job. This is because Lockheed Martin recently proved just how powerful a team of UAVs and ‘optionally manned’ helicopters can be for fighting fires and rescuing people.
Specifically, the company staged a demonstration on November 8, 2016 which showed that a quartet of UAVs and optionally-manned, autonomously-controlled helicopters can perform effectively in the location and airborne attack of fires, followed by airlifting personnel from the fire scene – all without having an actual firefighter at the scene. (For the record, an autonomously-controlled helicopter combines the aircraft’s own suite of onboard sensors and flying control modes with human-directed flight plans, mission instructions and direct interventions; usually done from a remote location using the aircraft’s visual and other real-time sensor data to inform the human pilot.)
The Lockheed Martin demo was staged at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York on a sunny but cool day.
The quartet was made up of four key Lockheed Martin aircrafts:
The Indago Quadrotor: Weighing less than 5 lbs, and deployable to a scene in a manpack; the unstowed, camera-equipped Indago can be unfolded and ready for flight in 60 seconds, and airborne in 2.5 minutes. Its flight is managed by a remote wireless handheld controller with video display.
The Desert Hawk 3.1: The Desert Hawk is a hand-launched fixed-wing UAV that comes with a gyro-stabilized 360-degree sensor turret, color and low light electro-optical plug-and-play payloads, and roll-stabilized infrared sensor payloads. Controlled by a lightweight, portable ground station, the Desert Hawk provides far more range and loitering ability than the Indago Quadcopter.
The K-MAX unmanned helicopter: Previously used by the Marines for autonomously-controlled, unmanned cargo flights in Afghanistan, the K-MAX combines the ability to lift a-4,000 pound payload at an altitude of 15,000' (6,000 pounds at sea level) with the autonomously-directed ability to pick up, fly and drop water from long-line buckets onto selected fire scenes.
The Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA): SARA is an optionally-piloted Sikorsky S-76 helicopter. Capable of flying in either manned or optionally-piloted flight modes, the SARA uses Lockheed Martin’s advanced MATRIX technology suite to enable autonomously-controlled flight.
“Working together as a team, these four aircrafts conducted a complete fire spotting, identification, and extinguishment mission on the Griffiss’ demo scene,” said Jon McMillen, Lockheed Martin’s business development lead for K-MAX helicopter programs. “They proved that this current generation of UAVs and autonomously-controlled aircraft have what it takes to do aerial firefighting and SAR (search-and-rescue) missions today.”
The Griffiss Mission
The Lockheed Martin fire/SAR ‘mission’ at Griffiss International Airport began with the lighting of a fire away from the airport’s runway area. Standing close (but not too close) to the fire was a ‘victim’; namely a participant waving his arms and looking for someone to rescue him.
The mission’s first stage belonged to the Indago quadcopter. “The Indago is ideal for quickly obtaining a bird’s-eye view of an incident scene,” said McMillen. “In the demonstration, the Indago was deployed to provide ‘first responders’ with a fast overview of the fire; to help them see what was happening and what was affected.”
With this data available, the demonstration team was able to launch the K-MAX to prepare for fire suppression water drops. As the K-MAX took off, the Indago searched for a nearby pond that could be used as a water source. Once the water drops began, the quadcopter was used by the K-MAX’s remote human operator to visually monitor how successful each drop was in knocking down the fire, as well as looking out for any ‘hot spots’ that might have popped up, also requiring attention.
Using the Indago’s visual information, the K-MAX’s human operator commanded the autonomously-flown helicopter to take off and head to the pond. Using its own sensor suite, the K-MAX dipped and filled the long-lined water bucket. It then flew to the site chosen by the remote operator and released its water load onto the fire. The K-MAX continued to conduct these suppression runs, as instructed by the remote operator, until the fire had been put out.
The Desert Hawk fixed-wing UAV had a different mission: Its goal was to find the person requiring evacuation from the ground. In an actual incident, the Desert Hawk has the staying power to provide long-term, situational awareness to remote human operators for both firefighting and SAR efforts. However, for the sake of the demo, the Desert Hawk focussed only on SAR, in this case, locating the missing victim so that SARA could be sent to rescue him.
Once the victim had been found, it was time for SARA to get involved. Using locational and terrain sensor information fed to it from the K-MAX – since both were equipped with MATRIX technology to enable inter-aircraft data communication – SARA headed to the rescue area. The helicopter’s onboard equipment then scanned the area for a safe landing zone. When this had been found, SARA managed its own descent. Once on the ground, the victim climbed inside and SARA carried him off to safety. This meant autonomously flying the S-76 to another part of the Griffiss airfield, identifying a remotely-specified landing area, and descending to the ground.
"Our goal is to support the integration of autonomy into aviation to improve the safety and capabilities for military and commercial missions,” noted Mark Miller, vice president, engineering and technology at Sikorsky; which is now a Lockheed Martin Company. “Utilizing MATRIX to support the mission in this demonstration highlights an example of the ability to reduce pilot workload and augment mission performance,"
Collectively, this Lockheed Martin team of unmanned and autonomously-controlled aircraft successfully managed to find and suppress a fire, and rescued a victim at Griffiss International Airport -- all without a single first responder having to set foot on, or personally fly above, the incident scene. As an illustration of how much can be done without directly deploying humans in an aircraft at an incident scene, this demo certainly made its point.
The success of Lockheed Martin’s firefighting/SAR demo has major implications for a remotely-controlled and autonomously-controlled aircraft. Not only can this unmanned aerial team perform complex tasks previously reserved for a manned aircraft, but an unmanned aircraft may be able to do so for longer periods than manned platforms ever could. After all, with the right fuel loads and 24/7 shifts of remote operators, it should be possible to keep unmanned aircrafts in service far longer than their manned equivalents; especially when precious fuel isn’t being consumed while keeping human pilots aloft.
“What needs to happen now is for us to start proving this combination of unmanned aircraft in actual fire situations,” said Jon McMillen. “It may seem a stretch to convince human firefighters to let us help them but remember that we previously had to sell the Marines on using autonomously-controlled K-MAXs in action – and now they are firm supporters of this operational concept.”