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AI-Powered Aircraft Shown to Reduce Wildfire Response Time

Early detection is critical to successfully combatting wildfires, and autonomous helicopters fitted with AI technologies could respond quickly to and suppress a fire before it has time to burn out of control.

Wildfire smoke in San Jose, Calif.
Shutterstock/Geartooth Productions
As the nation grapples with the trend of longer, more intense fire seasons, the continued development of a swifter initial attack becomes even more important.

The West, especially California, has been slashing the initial response time to wildfires, from getting to the fire between one and six hours in the 1990s to about 20 minutes within the last decade. But even faster response times are in the offing with the deployment of early detection satellite constellations, and soon, autonomous aircraft that will in effect respond to a fire autonomously and do the work of suppressing it.

Rain, a California startup that offers technology for wildfire containment, and Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, recently showed how a Black Hawk helicopter with Rain’s Wildfire Mission Autonomy System onboard can respond autonomously to suppress a wildfire.

With Sikorsky’s help, Rain demonstrated late last year how an autonomous aircraft carrying water can be quickly dispatched to suppress a fire in its very early stages. There were a series of these demonstrations that had wildfire response experts licking their chops.

“Reducing wildfire response time has always been our primary goal,” said Brian Fennessy, Orange County, Calif., Fire Authority chief. “Rain’s autonomous wildfire suppression technology will give every community the opportunity to stop wildfires before they grow out of control.”

During the flights, Alchera X's Firescout AI smoke detection cameras located a plume of smoke, Rain's software dispatched the helicopter, and flown by Sikorsky’s flight autonomy system, it located the burn.

The solution is described as an “end-to-end autonomous wildfire response, from planning, preflight, takeoff, flight, Bambi bucket operations, suppression, and landing.” It is performed by a Black Hawk with a high-resolution aircraft thermal sensor incorporated to enable “fire localization and targeting.”

“Really, it’s about scaling something that has been successful as a fire response model to date, which is initial attack,” said Max Brodie, Rain’s CEO and co-founder. “Initial attack has been a proven model and has been essentially focused on reducing response time over the last several decades.”

Already in California there are around 1,100 early detection cameras, which continuously process imagery to look for smoke signatures day and night. What Rain demonstrated was how one of these early detection cameras could identify the smoke signature and then dispatch an autonomous aircraft to investigate the ignition, perceive fire, develop a suppression strategy and extinguish the fire.

Brodie said that what they found during simulations was that it was possible not only to reduce response time, but when identifying the inflection point of the fire to also determine how they needed to get there before the fire got out of control.

“It’s really just very difficult to overstate the moment that we’re in with catastrophic wildfires impacting our communities as well as the air we breathe and our battle against climate change,” Brodie said. He said that when people think about carbon emissions they usually think about billowing smoke from factories. But the role of wildfire is underreported, Brodie said, and is undeniably climate fueled.

“The great advantage of [autonomous aircraft] is that because they are deployable 24 hours a day and can operate in remote regions, they can significantly reduce response times,” Brodie said. “And as with any emergency response, time is everything.”
Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.