Most summers while I was growing up, my dad—who spent his entire career with the U.S. Forest Service—would disappear for two or three weeks to go help fight fires out West. We were blessed; he came home to us alive and uninjured every time, and he lived past 90.
Too many other families weren’t as fortunate as mine. Catastrophic burnovers like the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 (I remember Dad talking about studying that one in his training), the Rattlesnake Fire in 1953, the South Canyon Fire in 1994, and the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 resulted in a lot of families losing loved ones all at once. Those kinds of tragedies get big headlines, but wildland firefighters (WFFs) are killed and injured in smaller numbers in a variety of ways all over the U.S. throughout each summer’s fire season. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, over 400 on-duty WFF fatalities occurred between 2000 and 2019.
With my personal tie to the well-being of our nation’s WFFs, I got awfully interested when I learned that aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin, which has about 114,000 employees worldwide and delivered sales of nearly $60 billion in 2019, wants to help eliminate those tragedies while making fighting wildfires more effective. Their Skunk Works innovation center, which developed such legendary planes as the SR-71 Blackbird supersonic reconnaissance jet and the F-117A Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft, is bringing its wealth of talent and expertise to bear against that challenge.
Atherton Carty, a 23-year veteran of Lockheed Martin, is the VP of Strategy and Business Development for the Skunk Works division. “Over the last seven or eight years, we’ve been broadening the technical development of the entire portfolio of Skunk Works projects,” he said. “There’s a product we’ve been maturing now for about a decade, the Stalker unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). With it, we can keep both the warfighter and the firefighter front and center.
Originally developed to provide battlefield support with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data for our soldiers, the Stalker UAV now also provides support for WFFs. “It would be a game-changer,” Carty said. “It could grow to be a standard part of firefighting. It uses AI and machine learning to augment the human on the ground. The platform is versatile on sensors, with infrared and other ISR sensors and a high-definition camera, for example—it can carry multiple different packages. You could add atmospheric sensors as well. It’s sensor and payload agnostic. It’s like a Swiss Army Knife, always with the right tool for the job.”
With its array of sensors, the Stalker can help WFFs on the ground see the full picture of the fire they’re fighting, and to know ahead of time when dangerous conditions are developing. “It’s very much the same mission as for the warfighter,” said Carty. “It helps you see the danger ahead of time.” In addition to safeguarding their well-being, that will make them more effective in their firefighting efforts.
The flexibility of the platform is another element of its effectiveness for the application. “It’s built to be turned around quickly for refueling or for swapping sensors,” explained Carty. “The original design dictated by the military required adaptability and flexibility, which is also an excellent fit for firefighting. It can fly for eight hours at a time. With multiple vehicles, that could mean 24-hour-a-day coverage. It will give the firefighting tacticians round-the-clock knowledge of how the fire is advancing, so they know how best to deploy the resources they have.”
A primary concern that the Stalker design addresses in advance is air traffic control. Airspace over a big fire can have multiple aircraft flying through to drop water or fire-suppressing chemicals. Since fires are often in remote locations, it’s not like there’s a traffic control tower to keep aircraft safe. To help safeguard against sending piloted aircraft into unsafe airspace, Stalker UAVs can be flown instead, helping to track hot spot locations, map fire lines, and identify safe access roads so firefighters and their vehicles can avoid potential danger zones. The maps are updated daily, sending real-time footage to the command centers to enable accurate and timely decision making.
Carty sees other potential civilian applications for the Stalker as well. “It’s viable for lots of uses,” he said. “It doesn’t take millions of dollars to deploy. It can be hauled in an SUV and set up in minutes. It has a 12-foot wingspan and can be flown by one person. It’s launched with a bungee or on a rail. We have a newer vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) version as well. So it could work for municipal police and fire departments, civil security for large events, monitoring agricultural operations, or for search and rescue.”
Carty welcomes these kinds of challenges in rethinking Lockheed Martin’s systems and platforms originally designed for the defense world for potential use in civilian applications. “Our company’s priority has always been to take our customers’ needs very seriously,” he said. “We help solve their problems—it’s the Skunk Works legacy.”