U.S. Air Force wildfire firefighting drones WingXpand

U.S. Air Force is using drones for an unexpected reason — fighting wildfires

A major midwestern drone company just scored a massive contract with the U.S. Air Force — and the U.S. Air Force intends to use them for a reason that’s perhaps unexpected: fighting wildfires, and more specifically using drones for wildfire detection and prevention. Here’s what you need to know about the Air Force fighting wildfires with drones:

St. Louis-based aerospace startup, WingXpand, announced this month that it had won a seven-figure contract with the U.S. Air Force for its 7-foot, wide expandable aircraft (the company calls it “backpackable” given how it can fold down in size). Along with the drone itself, the U.S. Air Force’s contract also covers WingXpand’s AI software that supports the early detection and mitigation of wildfires. 

The version the Air Force is set to receive will be an upgraded aircraft from the product that WingXpand has currently been building and touting. The upgraded version for the Air Force is being built to withstand more rigorous conditions, and it’ll also be equipped with advanced fire spotting software.

“Our collaboration with the U.S. Air Force and the contract we’ve secured emphasizes the innovative work we do,” said James Barbieri, CEO and Co-Founder of WingXpand, in a prepared statement. “Not only have we developed an easy and powerful aircraft, but our AI technology will also contribute significantly to preventing wildfire loss.”

U.S. Air Force wildfire firefighting drones WingXpand
Photo courtesy of WingXpand

WingXpand’s expandable drone uses a fixed-wing style (like a plane, rather than a helicopter), which allows for longer flight time — two hours, in fact, all the while carrying up to two pounds of a payload, which is typically customizable sensors for data collection. The fixed-wing stands out for what the company calls a ‘telescoping design‘ that expands from pack to flight in less than 2 minutes. Its drones are used by customers in fields including public safety, agriculture, and inspections.

But it seems as though the real reason the U.S. Air Force is interested in the drone is because of the tech inside. That’s a smart computer called Edge AI, which enables the aircraft to detect early signs of wildfires autonomously. In theory, the Air Force could identify potential threats early, notifying emergency services to respond far sooner than they otherwise would have.

So how can AI-powered drones cut back on those fire risks?

For starters, fires start for different reasons, including lightning strikes, human error or utility issues. In WingXpand’s proposition, a pilot would be flying the drone either as part of a routine check or after a specific event or accident. The drone’s onboard AI software can assist in recognizing where exactly smoke or other signals of an early fire are coming from. From there, WingXpand’s built-in communication systems would be able to autonomously alert the operator when those signs are detected. In turn, the operator could pass on that information to first responders who would take the next steps on how to react and respond.

Additionally, WingXpand’s tech can be used to monitor controlled burns to ensure they don’t go out of control.

U.S. Air Force wildfire firefighting drones WingXpand
Photo courtesy of WingXpand

How WingXpand landed the U.S. Air Force contract

The award was granted through a government initiative called the Small Business Innovation Research program. The goal of that SBIR contract with WingXpand was to explore the use of WingXpand in this capacity and develop this software, so the Air Force is WingXpand’s initial ‘customer’ for this.

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) initiative is a competitive program to encourage domestic small businesses to engage in research and development with federal agencies in what’s ideally a symbiotic relationship. Small businesses get money to put toward their own research, which ideally could help them profit from commercialization. And federal agencies get the latest tech at their disposal.

The news of the U.S. Air Force investing in drone tech serves as good news for many parties, too. It’s certainly good for people at risk of wildfires — which in recent years has been the U.S. West Coast (particularly California) but even more recently has been the northern U.S. and Canada. And of course, it’s also a big win for WingXpand to have scored such a major contract.

“The U.S. Air Force’s investment…opens the door to future collaborations with other defense entities,” according to a company statement.  And WingXpand says ultimately future clients win too.

The exciting part is that all of our customers across all the industries we serve will benefit from the robustness and ruggedization that’s gone into updating our WingXpand UAS for the Air Force,” WingXpand President Michelle Madaras told The Drone Girl.

U.S. Air Force wildfire firefighting drones WingXpand
Photo courtesy of WingXpand

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