Air tankers are an important part of the fire-fighting arsenal, but their current reliance on human pilots severely limits their potential. With the goal of expanding aerial firefighting capabilities by removing the human pilot from the aircraft, Nevada-based Drone America and Georgia-based Thrush Aircraft have teamed up to develop the world's first autonomous air tanker.

The recent California wildfires have only highlighted the increased risk many areas face as a result of a changing climate. Although air tankers played a vital role in fighting this and other large fires around the globe, the fact the aircraft are manned restricts them to daylight use, which prevents fire fighters from taking full advantage of cooler nighttime temperatures.

To allow air tankers to operate tirelessly at all hours of the day or night, Drone America, which specializes in the design and manufacture of UAVs, and Thrush Aircraft, which manufactures a variety of fire-fighting aircraft, have formed a strategic alliance. This is likely to see Drone America drawing on aspects of its Ariel amphibious UAS (pictured below) and Thrush Aircraft supplying its water bombing delivery systems expertise and a large airframe like that used in its 510G aircraft.

The goal is to develop an aircraft with the ability to autonomously deliver around 800 gal (3,000 L) of water or fire retardant to the heart of a fire, while also providing real-time data to ground-based crews through long-duration surveillance flights over a fire. It's also anticipated that the use of infrared cameras, sensors and integrated communications equipment would allow accurate mapping of fire intensity, rate and direction of spread.

"Joining in the fight to better control wildfires from the air is in perfect alignment with our recent introduction of the 510G Switchback and its advanced manned-aircraft firefighting capabilities," says Payne Hughs, president and CEO of Thrush Aircraft. "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."

Although firefighting is the initial focus, the two companies will also examine the potential for unmanned aircraft in other heavy-payload applications, such as delivering humanitarian aid, disaster relief, remote cargo transportation, and maritime patrol.

There's no estimate on when we might see autonomous air tankers fighting fires, but they'll no doubt be a welcome sight when they do.

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