Sikorsky, Rain demo autonomous firefighting helicopter

A manned Black Hawk helicopter carries water to douse flames of the Thomas Fire in Ojai, California, in 2017.

A manned Black Hawk helicopter carries water to douse flames of the Thomas Fire in Ojai, California, in 2017.

The companies integrated their autonomous flight and wildfire detection technologies into a Black Hawk helicopter.

Autonomous systems, and in particular unmanned vehicles, are taking on more complex tasks and missions whether they be in the air, on land or at sea.

But the announcement by Sikorsky and about an autonomous Black Hawk helicopter they designed to sniff out wildfires caught my eye.

Sikorsky of course is well-known as a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin.

But I had never heard of Rain. Two of the company’s co-founders, CEO Maxwell Brodie and Chief Engineer Ephraim Nowak, experienced wildfires firsthand as children growing up a mile apart in Canada's British Columbia province.

Rain's website relays the story of how Brodie helped his dad nail a soaker hose to the roof as ash rained down on them and the neighborhood was being evacuated.

In 2019, the pair and a third co-founder in Chief Technology Officer Bryan Hatton began working on a prototype of an autonomous drone system to detect wildfire ignition.

Their reasoning was that early detection allows fire agencies to respond more rapidly.

The work has evolved from outfitting military and commercial drones to a partnership with Sikorsky to put the system on a Black Hawk helicopter.

A late 2023 demonstration at Sikorsky’s headquarters in Stratford, Connecticut combined that business' Matrix flight autonomy system with Rain’s wildfire mission autonomy system on a Black Hawk helicopter.

The helicopter also carried water as part of the demonstration. Safety pilots were also on board.

But the autonomous system demonstrated early detection, dispatch, route planning, preflight takeoff, flight, targeting, suppression and landing.

The system also conducted a Bambi Bucket operation that saw the helicopter scoop up water that was then delivered to the wildfire, according to Rain.

Rain has released a video of the demo that is embedded below.

One thing that stands out to me and the reason I wanted to highlight this story is that this isn’t artificial intelligence and autonomy looking for a problem.

It all started with the mission. While there is a lot of handwringing about AI and its dangers, we’ll likely see some amazing results if the focus stays on the mission first.

Plus, it sure is cool to see an autonomous helicopter pick up and deliver buckets of water to put a fire out.