Erickson Looks To Improve Firefighting Through R&D Unit

 - May 8, 2020, 2:44 PM
Erickson's research and development unit is developing software that is expected to help pilots determine the best locations within a wildland fire to drop water. (Photo: Erickson Inc.)

Erickson is known both as an operator and manufacturer of the S-64 Air Crane heavy-lift helicopter, along with providing the air power to fight wildfires globally. But the Portland, Oregon-based company that also offers commercial lift services with its fleet of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as MRO services, is now adding research and development to its credentials.

And leading that charge is senior director of R&D Jeff Baxter, who joined the company a little more than a year ago. His team is developing software that is aimed at helping firefighters determine the most effective location to drop water on a wildland fire that will more efficiently and effectively extinguish it.

“Currently, a pilot flies up to a smoky environment and gets some generic instructions from the air boss about what area to work, and then it’s really up to him to put the water in the appropriate location,” Baxter told AIN. “And that can be quite challenging especially if the treetops are high and you can’t actually see the fire.”

The software that Baxter’s team is developing will use infrared images collected from sensors mounted on an aircraft that flies over a fire and transmits that information in real-time to the ground. Using GPS and computer algorithms, the software will map images of the fire and highlight the areas within it to drop water. It also will consider the effect of wind and terrain on the water drop, the amount of water needed to be effective in dousing the fire, as well as assign a score to the effectiveness of the actual drop.

“So the intent here is to do two things: it’s to select water drop locations and then to select water drop flow rates,” Baxter explained. “If we can optimize those automatically, then that kind of…[gives] pilots a more robust recommendation of how to use their assets.”

Baxter added that the development of the software probably won’t be ready until the 2021 fire season. But his team is ready to test the remote sensors and real-time mapping application of a fire, and Erickson is currently seeking a partner to help it evaluate that portion of the system. Testing partners could include the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or “some of those larger organizations [such as] counties that are always under threat of wildfire,” he added.

Ultimately, the data collected for each fire by this system will be archived and could be used to help firefighters in developing strategies for fighting future fires. “We’ve only had the capability of measuring this kind of stuff remotely for a year,” Baxter noted. “So I think definitely, it’s a body of knowledge that as it grows, we’ll learn new things about firefighting that will make it more effective because currently there are no metrics. There are zero measurements made when you drop water out of a helicopter to know if it was effective or not. And that’s not OK.”

Separately, Baxter is developing what he calls a firefighting aircraft comparison tool. The idea behind it is to determine which model and/or type of fixed- or rotor-wing aircraft would be best for fighting a specific wildland fire.

Using performance data of the 16 most commonly used firefighting aircraft in the current global arsenal—including small helicopters such as the Bell 212, the single-engine turboprop AT-802F Fire Boss all the way up to the 747 Supertanker and, of course, Erickson’s S-64—such as range, speed, the capacity of a water tank and other measures, the tool analyzes how effective each aircraft would be in a fire based on factors such as the size of the fire, distance of the fire from the aircraft’s base, and the nearest water source. The resulting analysis shows which aircraft is best suited for a given fire. It also compares each aircraft’s operating costs for a given fire.

“This tool kind of allows anybody to take a look at their fire environment and say which one of these aircraft is the right one,” Baxter said.

He plans to make the tool available for free through Google Sheets, once reviews by a number of people in the industry are complete. He’s offering it as open source so users will be able to input data from other aircraft used for firefighting that aren't included in the current list. “I’m interested in it from a very kind of platform-agnostic approach,” Baxter said.