Columbia Helicopters and Boeing’s Aurora Flight Sciences are collaborating to explore the development of an enhanced pilot situational awareness (EPSA) degraded visual environment (DVE) flight capability on a Columbia helicopter to be used for aerial firefighting. The DVE flight system is expected to combine onboard sensor inputs with Aurora’s automated trajectory planning technology to identify safe flight paths.
Data from these systems will be visually represented in a transparent heads-up display mounted to the pilot’s helmet. Columbia noted that while night vision devices (NVDs) are enabling some expansion to night operations, nothing currently exists to enable pilots to fly safely in DVEs caused by thick and persistent smoke during the day and that aerial firefighting largely remains a daylight operation.
A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated that aerial fire suppression during DVE conditions could save $300 million per year, in addition to reducing fire losses by one million acres. “When aircraft have the ability to fight fires in all conditions, they can significantly contribute to reducing acres burned and the overall ballooning cost of fires,” said Santiago Crespo, Columbia’s v-p of growth and strategy.