Authorities test autonomous helicopter's firefighting capabilities

Lockheed Martin's and Kaman's K-MAX helicopters are known for pilotlessly transporting cargo in Afghanistan, but it might soon be saving lives and nature in the US, as well. The companies have demonstrated an autonomous K-MAX with firefighting capabilities in front of federal officials on October 14th near Boise, Idaho. While there was a pilot onboard during the flight, he had his hands up most of the time, indicating that the aircraft can fly on its own. Within an hour-and-a-half, the chopper completed seven tasks, including scooping up water and dropping it on targets.

Feds want to use autonomous choppers to fight wildfires, as they the can fly at night and even in low visibility (e.g. when the smoke gets too thick), without endangering pilots' lives. The K-MAX used for the demo flight can be controlled remotely, though it can also fly on its own -- even if it loses its connection with ground control -- so long as it's preprogrammed with a route and a destination. It's equipped with three communication methods and has two different satellite links, as well. Authorities are still considering other companies' choppers for the project, but Interior Department's Mark Bathrick said autonomous helicopters could be battling wildfires as soon as next summer.

[Image credit: Lockheed Martin]