One summer’s day, I was flying from Porto to Madrid. Just after take-off, I saw more than twenty-five active forest fires and the supporting firefighting planes. They did that until the next morning.
I was shocked and, in order to help, I started to analyse the situation. I figured out that fighting forest fires is mainly a night-time operation and, due to that fact, it suffers great operational shortcomings.
Compared to all other sectors of aviation where, during the last seventy years, significant innovations had been applied, paradoxically no modern aeronautic technologies have been implemented in aerial firefighting up to now.
How it started
We at NF Advanced Engineering wanted to change that by using the innovativeness of drones to help the hard-working firefighting pilots around the world. These “specific drones” will be able to extinguish forest fires at night and make the job of the pilots safer, easier, cheaper, operationally more efficient and, at the same time, prevent disaster. This is when NitroFirex drone AGC (Autonomous Glider Container), the winner of the 2018 Galileo Masters Galicia Challenge, was born. An innovative patented “specific” category drone for night aerial forest firefighting and night drug plantation fumigation to eliminate the crews’ risk and cover the operational gap, i.e. the night.
To overcome the limitations of the current airborne assets, which do not allow night operations, we introduced a totally new concept: Unmanned glider containers carrying an extinguishing/fumigating agent with a liquid payload of 2,500 litres, which is launched from a helicopter hanging like a bucket or from the rear ramp of heavy transport aircraft. These are autonomously directed to the source of fire to drop their content with great precision as a guided / glided bomb and then return to base as a drone.
The utilisation of specific drones in order to develop the operational capability of extinguishing forest fires during the night are a worldwide necessity. The costs of forest fires are estimated to be more than EUR 10,000 million per year in just the countries where NitroFirex is patented.
Fighting forest fires with LATs (large air tankers) or VLATs (very large air tankers) during the day is not a challenge. The biggest shortcoming of these aerial means is their lack of night-time operation capability. The efforts of the responsible agencies, policymakers, the firefighting and aeronautical companies must be oriented to eliminate this limitation while taking advantage of all existing resources and tools.
Today, it does not make sense to jeopardise crews’ lives and expensive aircraft in a risky night-time operation when, with the available technologies, such an operation can be performed with greater safety and economy by unmanned aerial vehicles designed specifically for this purpose.
The big destructive fires last one day, one night and are out of control the next morning. We believe that the priority should be to develop “first-night” aerial forest firefighting operational capability and this is NitroFirex’s main objective.
The same operational concept and specific NitroFirex drone can be applied to other necessary civil applications, such as
- Drug plantation spraying (at night) (Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, others)
- Meteorological phenomena (seeding or producing cloud)
- Fires in high buildings or large structures (not accessible with standard tubes)
- Fires in chemical and/or industrial factories (with toxic fumes and calm winds)
- Spraying pesticides (remote and/or inaccessible areas)
- Delivering humanitarian relief supplies (in conflict areas)
Cooperation with ESA
Through the Galileo Masters and its great promotion, we obtained the possibility to work with the European Space Agency (ESA). With the support of ESA, we finished a small concept demonstrator that is able to drop several dozen litres while in flight, demonstrating the ability of a drone to suddenly discharge a quantity of liquid that represents a significant percentage of its maximum take-off weight, MTOW (from 50 to 80%), and control the abrupt change of C of G with all the manoeuvre remaining inside the flight envelope.
Our next step is to develop a pre-commercial demonstrator in the range of one to two thousand litres of useful liquid that maintains the same percentage of weight loss of its MTOW as the small concept demonstrator. To accomplish this stage, we will need further financing along with technological and political partners and support.
Our project became more and more necessary each day and it is technically viable. Our operational concept and market represent a new fully virgin global market niche. For that reason, sooner or later, governments and responsible agencies will have to take action and require the aeronautical industry to provide technological solutions to support firefighters. We believe that we must combine efforts and synergies in order to achieve the necessary night-time aerial forest firefighting capabilities as soon as possible and try to save lives, properties, economic losses, CO2 emissions, and our natural heritage.
About Luis Bordallo Álvarez:
Luis Bordallo Álvarez is President & CEO of NitroFirex. He is a qualified pilot, having logged a total of over 20,000 flying hours, and an entrepreneur. He was a pilot in the Spanish Air Force for 20 years. As a fighter pilot with over 3,000 combat aircraft hours, he is a specialist in ground attack techniques and guided-glider bombs. He has been flying as a captain in a Regional Aircraft company since 1996. He patented the NitroFirex Operational Concept and founded NitroFirex in 2005. Since 2008, he has been leading the NitroFirex team, a group of engineers and pilots that have been working together to achieve the goal of extinguishing forest fires at night from the air.