Columbia Helicopters and Aurora Flight Sciences are committed to developing technology for aerial firefighting flights in poor visibility environments
Aurora, Oregon – May 4, 2021 – Columbia Helicopters (Columbia) and Aurora Flight Sciences (Aurora), a Boeing Company, signed a Memorandum of Understanding this week to jointly design, integrate, test and demonstrate enhanced situational awareness for pilots to investigate (EPSA) degraded the visual environment flight (DVE) of a Columbia helicopter for use in suppression of forest fires from the air.
Since the beginning of fire fighting from the air, fire fighting by airplanes during the day has largely remained a clear undertaking. Visibility risks such as forest fire smoke limit flight operations in the event of a fire to around a third of the available day. While night vision devices (NVDs) allow some expansion to night operations, there is currently nothing that allows pilots to safely fly in DVEs caused by thick and persistent smoke during the day.
Columbia and Aurora aim to overcome these limitations with a new flight system that integrates multiple aircraft-mounted sensor technologies that improve situational awareness and provide the pilot with a clear, synthetic, real-time image.
“This technology provides the real ability to operate safely day and night in DVE conditions, greatly expanding Columbia’s capabilities,” said Santiago Crespo, vice president of growth and strategy for Columbia. “If airplanes can fight fires in all conditions, they can make a significant contribution to reducing the acres burned and the overall cost of a fire.”
A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated that using air fire suppression safely in DVE conditions would reduce acres burned by one million hectares per year and reduce annual fire-fighting costs by $ 300 million could.
The DVE flight system is expected to combine inputs from an integrated modular sensor suite with Aurora’s automated flight path planning technology to identify safe flight paths. The data from these systems is presented visually in a transparent heads-up display that is attached to the pilot’s helmet. They provide navigational and critical flight data in a simple real-time display to support both day and night operations.
Upon understanding, the parties expect Aurora to be responsible for developing and testing the technology while Columbia is responsible for aircraft deployment, system integration, support and operator expertise.
Once a system is developed, tested, and integrated, Columbia and Aurora plan demonstrations for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Forest Service, and federal fire departments with the aim of promoting laws and contract languages that will enable the new technology to handle the country’s growing wildfires .
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