Albany, Ga.-based Thrush Aircraft has formed a strategic alliance with unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturer Drone America to develop what they call of “the world’s first autonomous air tanker.”
The new tanker is expected to blend Thrush’s large airframe and airborne delivery system expertise with Drone America’s “Ariel” amphibious platform – resulting in an aircraft capable of delivering some 800 gallons of water or fire retardant autonomously. The aircraft will also have the ability to conduct long-duration tactical surveillance flights over a fire to give firefighters, operations managers, and public safety coordinators on the ground real-time understanding of conditions and fire behavior.
“As the almost incomprehensible devastation of the 2017 fire season has shown, there is virtually no limit to the level of destruction to property and natural environments wildfires can cause,” comments Mike Richards, president and CEO of Drone America, which is based out of Reno, Nev. “We founded our company on the belief that highly reliable, well-integrated autonomous systems can significantly improve public and environmental safety. Our collaboration with Thrush represents a major step forward in achieving that goal, and we’re excited to be joining forces in the fight against one of our country’s most challenging foes: wildland fires.”
Currently, manned air tankers are restricted from fighting fires during night hours, according to the companies. However, it is during this “dark window” that autonomous tankers can take advantage of the cooler night temperatures and reduced fire activity to support tactical ground operations – without risking the lives of pilots.
In addition to tanker duties, UAVs orbiting high above other firefighting aircraft can be equipped with infrared cameras, sensors and integrated communications equipment – making them particularly well-suited to systematically map and communicate fire intensity, rate and direction of spread. This high-level, on-scene intelligence gathering not only greatly enhances civilian and firefighter safety on the ground but also helps solve one of the most vexing problems of disaster response: linking voice and data transmissions across different and otherwise incompatible communication systems, the companies say.
Payne Hughes, president and CEO of Thrush Aircraft, says, “Collaborating with Drone America now gives us the ability to enhance airborne firefighting even more by applying our design, manufacturing and flight test capabilities to a whole new generation of autonomous aircraft that can do things manned aircraft simply can’t do safely or as efficiently. We couldn’t be more pleased to be getting this new relationship underway.”
Teams from both companies will also explore other unmanned heavy-payload applications such as humanitarian aid, disaster relief, remote cargo transportation and maritime patrol.