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Autonomous helicopter fights wildfires

by Marco van der Hoeven

Rain, specializing in autonomous aerial wildfire containment technology, and Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company developing rotorcraft, have completed a series of flight tests. These tests demonstrated the capabilities of an autonomous helicopter in the early suppression of wildland fires. The collaboration involved integrating Rain’s wildfire mission autonomy technology with Sikorsky’s Optionally Piloted Black Hawk helicopter, which is equipped with the MATRIX flight autonomy system.

The tests, conducted at Sikorsky’s headquarters in Stratford, Connecticut, showcased the helicopter’s ability to autonomously detect, target, and suppress wildfires at an early stage. The Black Hawk helicopter, while operating in an autonomous mode, had Sikorsky safety pilots on board. This demonstration combined technologies such as Alchera X’s FireScout AI, which powers early detection cameras, with automated aircraft dispatch and routing systems developed by Rain.

The autonomous system by Rain processed imagery from an on-board high-resolution thermal camera. This allowed the aircraft to precisely identify the fire’s location, control its flight path, and coordinate the timing of water release. The integrated solution exhibited capabilities for an end-to-end autonomous response to wildfires. This includes early detection, dispatch, route planning, preflight procedures, takeoff, flight operations, Bambi bucket operations, targeting, suppression efforts, and landing.

Rain plans to continue its collaboration with fire agencies to integrate autonomous systems into operational frameworks, aiming to enhance safety for responders and communities. This includes advancing the capabilities for autonomous firefighting in partnership with Sikorsky.

Sikorsky’s MATRIX technology has been in development for over 12 years and is designed to enable both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft to be flown with reduced crew or no crew on board. This technology is critical for optionally piloted flights, allowing aircraft to operate safely in obstacle-rich environments through a combination of software and hardware components. To date, MATRIX has been successfully demonstrated on ten different rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.

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