The roaring fire rose out of a grassy field in upstate New York last November 8, Election Day. Thick black smoke billowed skyward—but not for long. Minutes after a five-pound quadcopter Indago drone used an infrared camera to locate the flames, a gray twin-rotor Kaman K-MAX helicopter swooped in, filled its enormous Bambi bucket from a nearby pond, and dumped 3,000 gallons to extinguish the fire. But the day’s danger wasn’t over: Another drone—this one a small, hand-launched Desert Hawk—located a lost camper who had been trapped behind the fire and helped lead in a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, which identified a suitable nearby landing zone and settled onto it to provide the camper the means to escape.
On the surface, the whole scenario appeared ordinary—precisely what unfolds on a regular basis during America’s increasingly long and costly annual wildland fire season. Yet every aircraft involved was a drone, and the carefully coordinated ballet by the four of them happened with only a little help from humans (mostly to transmit or confirm coordinates).
The demonstration, by Lockheed Martin and its subsidiary, Sikorsky, had been choreographed to show how four of its expanding family of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) could work together in the field to fight fires and conduct search-and-rescue operations. The crowd of observers gathered at the old Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, included officials from the federal and state government who hope that, sooner than later, these technologies will be brought to bear on seasonal wildfires out west.