AFDAU-T1: Increasing Accuracy on Aerial Firefighting Data

Australia just experienced its Black Summer bushfire siege, in which bushfires burned over 18 million hectares, killed 34 people directly and another 417 due to the aftereffects of bushfire smoke, while levelling more than 9,300 structures from June 2019 to May 2020.

In the wake of that disaster, an Australian company, Airborne Mission Systems, has teamed up with TracPlus Global in New Zealand to field a new device which could vastly improve the effectiveness of retardant and water drops in the very near future by providing that missing data. It’s called AFDAU-T1.

Aerial Firefighting Data Acquisition Unit

A recurring issue for aerial firefighters was that the existing solutions in the market were not accurate or reliable. Old systems required manual recalibration every time an operator picked up a new bucket that might be a different weight. If this time-consuming process was completed incorrectly, the data being reported was inaccurate which is especially important when it’s a government requirement to submit reliable firefighting event information.

In addition to being unreliable, these old systems were hugely costly to purchase, and even more costly to an operator if they were to fail in the middle of a busy firefighting season. The units were very time consuming and difficult to calibrate, with recalibration during bucket swaps taking over an hour, which is not a viable option during the course of a day fighting fires.

So AFDAU-T1 was born.

The Aerial Firefighting Data Acquisition Unit, or AFDAU-T1 for short, resulted from the collaboration of Zane Vohland, an Avionics Maintenance Engineer at Airborne Mission Systems, in Bankstown, New South Wales, and Shawn Deaker, the Chief Customer Experience Officer at TracPlus.

“We have a modest company called Airborne Mission Systems (AMS), which is myself, my brother Levi and Sam Hammond,” said Vohland. “I’m an Avionics Maintenance Engineer. Our job is going out and supporting helicopter operators, doing firefighting in Australia. We install bucketing systems, fix defects and go out on the fireground to make sure that everything electrically is working. When we’re not doing that we’re doing avionics upgrades, putting in new navigators, retrofitting old aircraft, and putting in new instrument panels.”

Levi has a background as an Aeronautical Engineer approving aircraft modifications, a talent which came in handy during the development of AFDAU-T1, which is now available to the market. And it’s none too soon.

“Two years ago the government in Australia required operators with contracts to report bucket events,” Vohland explained. “They now have to report their take-offs, their landings, how much water they picked up, how much they dropped and where they dropped it.

"A lot of our customers were dissatisfied with the hardware that was on the market at the time not being able to service government requirements. We started to do some prototyping and development working with United Aero Helicopters, one of our customers in Camden, New South Wales, who agreed to help us out with helicopter data logging.

"They had a machine on contract that needed to meet the requirements and agreed to work with us to prove that this was a viable choice for operators. We put one of the prototype units into their Kawasaki BK117, which worked a full season last season. That was big for us because it was quite a dreadful bushfire season, so we got a significant amount of data. We were able to adapt the algorithm inside the unit.”

AFDAU-T1 Founders. From left, Zane Vohland, Sam Hammond and Levi Vohland.

Fortunately, Vohland and his associates haven’t had to carry this burden alone.

“TracPlus has played an important role in developing the product. One of the things we were looking for was a way to deliver this information. We worked with Shawn Deaker at TracPlus, who has been a great help towards facilitating communications."

"TracPlus supports the RockAIR which transmits all that data. TracPlus takes that data and presents it to the government in a form they can use. They have been instrumental in helping us get to where we are today.”

The industry has also been supportive.

“Working shoulder to shoulder with the guys in the industry – the pilots, the business owners, the operators – has given us an appreciation for the firefighting industry,” said Vohland.

“We realized that you don’t just go off and do it yourself. We’ve had a lot of help and support from local operators, from TracPlus, and also from the government, which has contract requirements that we have to meet so that the aircraft can continue to operate on that contract.”

Government Focus on Data Collection

As wildfires worsen and available resources become overstretched, metrics are becoming more important to both the firefighting industry and the governments who fund them, whether in the Northern Hemisphere or Down Under.

“Definitely governments are starting to take more notice of this, especially in Australia, where they want to be able to identify what’s going into the bucket or the tank,” Vohland agreed.

“They’re seeing the strategic value of this data. We’re going back and looking at old runs on TracPlus showing where the water was dropped by looking at the lines on the map, where the fire was that they were fighting, you can see a picture of where they were trying to put the water.

“The operators can be quite cautious about what data is being logged, what’s being transmitted, so there’s a large amount of trust required between the government and the operators. We’re trying to facilitate a more open understanding of what’s being done with the data and how that data’s going to be used. We’re glad to be working with the government and the operators, providing strategic data to help fight fires, but this is not intended to police the operators.”

Despite operator concern over data monitoring, it’s the price of doing business with the government, as Vohland explained.

“I think operators of firefighting aircraft tend to be passionate about getting information that will help the government, so we have had a great reception from a lot of operators. The benefit to the operators is that, obviously, they need it for their contracts. But this is how technology develops and grows."

"You start with the requirement, and then you find out what you can do with it, how it can be really helpful. Operators are starting to realize that they can get a lot of data on their aircraft, even outside of just bucket data, so they can understand more about their aircraft as they operate."

"This equipment is sending this information instantaneously, so it’s a great demonstration of where we are in aviation in terms of what we’re doing with technology now. It’s really the start of what’s possible in this area of the industry.”

The Next Phase: Fixed-Wing Aircraft

Tests on the AFDAU-T1 module have not been limited to just helicopters, however.

“This season we have some customers with Air Tractors where we have started prototyping and testing with those guys,” Vohland disclosed.

“We have one customer in Victoria, Australia, who runs two Dromader aircraft, the only two M-18Ps I know of in Australia. He called up and said ‘Look, I know I need to comply with these contracts. I’ve got a rare type of aircraft, but I want to be at the forefront of providing the data that the government wants. He’s the kind of guy who loves technology and loves firefighting. It’s great to work with those kinds of people because they move the whole thing forward.”

But in the end, the operators bear the brunt of deploying this key innovation. “A lot of the expense of this technology, which is mandated by the government, rests on the operator, but the results are lacking, so we’re trying to really buck that trend. From all the results we’ve seen we stand behind our product as something that is going to meet the requirements and satisfy the government.”

And Vohland agrees that this data could prove crucial in giving the government, and the operators, the information they need as they prepare for the next bushfire season.

“We really appreciate the support we’ve gotten from United Aero Helicopters, TracPlus and Alpine Airwork in Victoria, Australia, in working with us to make this product a reality.”

Working with a larger company that already has a thriving customer base and distribution channels in place helps as well. “TracPlus is the distributor for our product, so when people want to purchase it, they will go to TracPlus. We’ll provide technical support and assistance to end-users and operators,” Vohland concluded.

Licensed aircraft maintenance engineer, Sam Hammond, holding the AFDAU-T1 device.

The TracPlus Connection

TracPlus is no stranger to the firefighting market in Australia, being one of the preferred NAFC tracking providers for aerial firefighters. TracPlus offers tracking, communication and collaboration solutions to the first responder market, working with customers such as CALFIRE, McDermott Aviation, Kestrel Aviation, and of course the customers behind AFDAU-T1 testing, United Aero, Alpine Airwork and XO Aviation.

Shawn Deaker, the Chief Customer Experience Officer at TracPlus Global, in Dunedin, New Zealand, discussed their working relationship with Airborne Mission Systems. “I’ve been involved in the project since the concept when Zane and I were discussing it about two years ago. We’ve been working together with our customers on this. We’re really excited about this.”

Besides Vohland’s technical skills, Deaker highlighted another important aspect of his personality. “Zane’s one of those engineers who can actually talk normally to people without getting too deeply into the technical details,” Deaker said with a laugh.

“Initially, Zane and I met up in Bankstown, outside of Sydney, during a client catch-up. His boss said ‘I’ve got this really talented engineer who has some questions about some of your products.’ They’d been working through some issues they’d been having with some products used for bucket reports for aerial firefighting and the complexities around tuning the devices to work correctly, the cost involved and other issues.”

After that meeting of the minds, Deaker said they got down to business. “We began to talk about what we could do with the RockAIR. It’s got a serial input, it’s got digital IOs for event detection, and we looked at whether we could do something around those. Zane was convinced that he could put something together that would talk to the load cell onboard the aircraft in conjunction with the RockAIR.”

Airborne Mission Systems also provided another important ingredient to the mix: an operator willing to provide a platform for the testing. “It didn’t take Zane long to build the initial development box. He had a customer who was close to him who was willing to work with him, and who had a good relationship with us as well, who was very interested in doing the testing and the initial development.”

However, the very first test wasn’t exactly airworthy.

“They started doing the testing using a forklift with a load cell attached to it and the RockAIR attached to the first prototype AFDAU-T1,” Deaker recalled. “We made sure it was reporting exactly what it was, for a fill of 1,100 liters, for a season of testing. We continued developing it over the winter.”

Together, the AFDAU-T1 and RockAIR devices allow data to be sent and stored in TracPlus for proof of compliance and reporting. This data is also sent to NAFC’s ARENA software to allow contractors to fulfil contractual event reporting requirements.

A Cost-Effective Solution for Firefighters

Cost-effectiveness is another important aspect of AFDAU-T1.

“The big drive behind this was that we knew the big agencies were pushing for this,” Deaker concurred.

“We knew that the systems out there at the time were expensive and difficult to work with."

"We thought that we could bring out something that was going to bring the cost down, provide more accurate data, and give us an interesting position in the market to make it easier for people who didn’t have full-time contracts, who didn’t have $20 million machines, who had an AS350 or A-Star that could do the same job as a big machine at a reasonable price. That was a big push to do that at a reasonable price with good quality equipment.”

Accurate data collection at a price point well below current systems available on the market should make AFDAU-T1 an attractive option for aerial firefighting contractors who are striving to keep ahead of worsening bushfires. It is working in Australia. It could work anywhere else in this warming world, where fires are destroying more and more each year.

Alongside an attractive price point, contractors can see the additional value of AFDAU-T1 to their business.

“For operators, despite the cost of putting this equipment on their aircraft they’re getting excited about the data it’s giving to them and providing to the agencies and the public because at the end of the day it’s the taxpayers and the public’s money that pays for these aircraft. So if they can see just how awesome and how effective these guys are at what they do, it’s really a feel-good story."

"AFDAU-T1 is going to help firefighters make better decisions about firefighting.”

AFDAU-T1 could be the answer to a more effective aerial firefighting force globally. The product is now available to the aerial firefighting market in Australia, with operators already installing AFDAU-T1 and RockAIR into their aircraft ahead of the next fire season. What this year will bring, operators do not know, however, one thing is for certain – they are always prepared. 

Learn more about how AFDAU-T1 can offer you reliable and accurate firefighting data here.

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