Boeing Frontiers
August 2003
Volume 02, Issue 04
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools
Integrated Defense Systems

Water bombs

Boeing invention could make C-17 a firefighter


William ClearyA beach ball-sized water bomb may some day take the danger out of aerial firefighting and greatly reduce the time and cost to extinguish a blaze.

The concept stems from a program sponsored by the Boeing Chairman's Innovation Initiative, which provides the context for Boeing people with great ideas to create new businesses.

An idea from William Cleary, a project manager in the Boeing Integrated Defense Systems Advanced Airlift and Tanker organization, involves an out-of-the-box method of fighting fires.

Dropping water or fire retardant on a fire requires conventional aircraft to swoop dangerously low in order to deliver their cloud of liquid where needed. Heat and thermal winds make the chore challenging, dangerous and often less effective.

"The sooner you can knock a fire down, the better," said Cleary, a designer of the proposed water bomb system. "In May of 2000, New Mexico's Los Alamos fire burned for three days before exploding into a 500-square-mile behemoth."

Bomblets away

water bomblets stacked neatly in containers   The water bomblets stack neatly in containers, ready for their precision free-fall to hot spots.
C-17   About 2,800 water-filled bomblets can be carried in a single C-17, enough for several drops on multiple targets.
water-filled bomblets drop from a C-17   The water-filled bomblets drop from a C-17 in this artist's rendering. The water bomblets fall precisely where they are needed, which aids greatly in containing a fire.

So how does a beach ball do the trick? The system, called Precision Aerial Fire Fighting, uses up to 2,800 biodegradable, faceted spheres stacked on pallets within cardboard containers. This delivery technique is similar to the way U.S. Air Force C-17s airdropped yellow humanitarian ration packages to Afghanis in 2001.

The unit's spherical shape minimizes airflow resistance. Each sphere contains 50 pounds of water and easily remains intact while it falls true to target. The spheres burst on impact at the heart of the fire. A single C-17 PAFF mission could airdrop 140,000 pounds of water on multiple "hot spot" targets—equivalent to nearly 100 helicopter deliveries.

"What's more," said Cleary, "the C-17 can airdrop from 1,000 to 2,000 feet above ground level using precision navigation and airdrop instrumentation, remaining safely away from the fire and winds," he said. "If a C-17 were used, this delivery system is remarkably cost effective, and the savings in lives and property make it an interesting possibility for the Air National Guard."

As with today's aerial firefighting, a ground safety fire commander would ensure ground personnel are clear of the airdrop zone and would direct airdrop targeting.

Advantages of C-17 Precision Aerial Fire Fighting

1) Safe aircraft altitude for airdrops
2) Use of collapsible, biodegradable containers
3) No special aircraft-equipment-corrosion problems
4) Multiple “hot spot” targeting with one aircraft
5) Increased payload, coverage, and speed to fire
6) All-weather/terrain aerial firefighting day or night
7) Computer-aided targeting
8) Bomblets falling true to target with an even burst

Significant resources are spent each year at local, state and federal levels to fight wildfires. California alone spends $1.3 billion annually fighting wild land fires.

The next phase of Precision Aerial Fire Fighting would include aircraft airdrop testing later this year. Based on analysis to date, this testing would verify that the PAFF system offers immediate containment of potentially devastating forest fires and pave the way for development of this innovative weapon in the war on fires.


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