AAM Role Seen In Battling Wildfires

China’s EHang has developed an eVTOL variant for urban firefighting.
Credit: EHang

Autonomous advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicles offer a solution to minimizing the environmental impact of wildfires, panelists told a White House-sponsored AAM conference Aug. 3.

“Today, wildfires represent almost 20% of our global CO2 emissions,” Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt said. “In my view, to suppress wildfires is likely our best lever to make a really significant difference in reducing our climate impact. I believe that aviation is uniquely positioned to do that, both on the drone side with detection and [by using] existing aircraft like helicopters and new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to aggressively fight fire.”

Bevirt joined AAM and drone industry proponents and federal agency officials at the summit event, which was sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and partially livestreamed to the public. Joby Aviation is developing a piloted, passenger-carrying electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with plans to type certify it for commercial service in 2024.

The Santa Cruz, California-based company once experienced a large wildfire in which “the helicopters and airplanes were all grounded because there was an inversion layer with heavy smoke,” Bevirt related. “If we could have autonomous helicopters that are flying 24/7 we could end wildfire. That is a huge thing that aviation can bring. We just need to develop a policy and implement it.”

As of Aug. 3, 62 large fires and complexes of multiple adjoining fires had burned 1.6 million acres in 15 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Three new fires were reported in Arkansas, California and Texas.

The U.S. military and firefighting agencies already use uncrewed aircraft systems to battle wildfires—on behalf of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Air National Guard operates the fixed-wing MQ-9A Reaper to map fire contours over long distances in smoky conditions. NASA is studying how drones can assist in wildfire management through its Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations project, with a goal to “add AAM aircraft into the mix.”

Among AAM vehicle developers, China’s EHang has developed an urban firefighting variant of its EHang 216 autonomous eVTOL aircraft, designated the EHang 216F.

Ella Atkins, chair and department head of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, concurred with Bevirt that AAM vehicles have a role to play in fighting wildfires. She cited advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning that have optimized the types of sensors that aircraft can bring to bear.

“We’re ready to deploy those machine learning algorithms for that particular application, [for] autonomous operations 24/7 in wildfire-prone areas,” Atkins said. “Autonomy is an absolute must for scalability and along with that is an airspace management strategy that can support those operations.”

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.