Although unmanned aircraft are typically not used to combat fires, Lockheed has just proved any doubters otherwise. This past week, Lockheed used its Stalker XE UAS drone to provide data and a precise location to an unmanned K-MAX cargo helicopter. By using an innovative dual-capability electro-optical infrared camera, the drone was able to work in tandem with the K-MAX helicopter to pinpoint fires and determine their intensity.
Most importantly, the drone able to complete the demonstration all while relaying updates to air traffic control. This singular capability is critical towards drones being able to fight fires in the real world, so this demonstration was a milestone for unmanned craft capabilities.
"This demonstration represents the path forward for flying UAS in the NAS using Flight Service-based UTM capabilities to extend the technology and systems that air traffic controllers know and understand," Transportation & Financial Solutions vice president Paul Engola said in a statement. "We were able to successfully modify the existing K-MAX and Stalker XE ground control software to connect to the UTM services and conduct the firefighting mission."
Unmanned firefighting air craft present a number of distinct advantages over manned aircraft including the ability to fly constantly and through low-visibility environments. With up to 8 hours of flight endurance, the STALKER XE drone has the potential to triple the amount of time firefighters on the ground are able to receive air support.
Although the unmanned K-Max helicopter platform has been used in military applications for several years, it has yet to catch on in a civilian capacity. However, Lockheed has high hopes for the unmanned K-Max as they are looking to apply it to firefighting, oil and gas, and even forestry. Look for unmanned aircraft to play an increasingly significant role in both military and civilian applications in the years to come.
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