Babcock to integrate unmanned rotorcraft into firefighting operations

Babcock Mission Critical Services is progressively integrating a remotely piloted air system (RPAS) into firefighting operations for coordination purposes.

Babcock is developing unmanned rotorcraft to answer the company's own needs. Babcock MCS Photo
Babcock is developing unmanned rotorcraft to answer the company’s own needs. Babcock MCS Photo
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A light RPAS, designed in-house, has started “operational deployments” this year. A “fully-validated operational use” is planned for next year, the company said at Helitech 2017.

Babcock provides helicopters for firefighting in Spain. The activity is its spearhead in RPAS, essentially aimed at lowering operating costs.

Replacing a conventional helicopter for coordination purposes involves transmitting real-time images in a dedicated airspace (in Spain, the civil aviation authority closes the airspace around a fire). It will be a first step; Babcock wants to extend the use of RPAS to other public services.

The company is gradually overcoming numerous challenges, expected or not in such a pioneering position. The first one is interoperability, said David Perez-Pinar, head of unmanned air system development for Babcock in Spain.

The images the coordinating RPAS transmits have to be received by every other aircraft, ground vehicle and mission control center, which means every asset has to be equipped with a proper terminal.

Having not found any suitable commercial off-the-shelf system, Babcock is developing its own unmanned aircraft, the LUA and the larger LUMES, both with a conventional helicopter architecture.

The LUA’s maximum takeoff weight stands at 25 kilograms (55 pounds) for a 10 kilogram (22 pound) payload. Optimized for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, it features a 75-kilometer (40.5-nautical mile) range. It can be deployed in 15 minutes, Perez-Pinar said.

The LUMES FF-101 has a 150-kilogram (330-pound) maximum takeoff weight. Endurance is predicted at four hours with a 35-kilogram (77-pound) ISR payload. Babcock has “tested and validated” a demonstrator in flight and is “manufacturing two more advanced prototypes,” Perez-Pinar explained. Certification is planned for 2018.

The LUMES’ greater size and weight are expected to give it better stability in turbulent air, such as those encountered in firefighting operations. This is what the initial design is optimized for. In a second phase, Babcock intends to factor in the needs of other public services. The company wants to serial-produce the LUMES, starting in 2020.

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Simultaneously, Babcock hopes to be able to integrate RPAS into a non-segregated airspace.

“We want to use these systems outside firefighting,” Perez-Pinar said. Babcock’s strategy is conditioned by regulations. In Spain, smaller RPAS can be used in very restricted envelopes – 120 meters (394 feet) in height and 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the ground operator.

Perez-Pinar hopes rules at European Aviation Safety Agency-level will relax these limits in 2018. In parallel, he hopes the maximum weight in the smaller category will be raised to 35 kilograms (77 pounds), from 25 kilograms (55 pounds).

Boosting Babcock’s efforts is Galicia’s “civil unmanned air vehicle initiative.”

Spain’s northwest region wants to become a center of excellence for RPAS. To foster the nascent industry, it intends to “validate” the use of RPAS in operations such as water resource management, agriculture and cultural heritage monitoring.

Perez-Pinar believes his company will provide services in this framework from 2020.

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