New Firefighting Drone Can Shoot Continuous Stream of Water from the Sky
BY Zacc Dukowitz11 July 2023
A new drone made in Portugal can shoot water at fires from the air. The goal is for the drone to put out fires when they’re still small, allowing firefighters to remain at a safe distance from the blaze.
Credit: ADAI/University of Coimbra
This new firefighting drone is called the SAP, an acronym for the words “ported nozzle system” in Portuguese.
The ported system that gives the drone its name consists of a fire-proof hose, which hangs down from the hull, and two jets, which point water down at the fire to help douse it as the drone hovers in the air.
It’s the future of firefighting. We’re trying to bring robotics technology to wildfire management. Because every opportunity we have to keep people from dying during firefighting, we need to try.
– Carlos Viegas, SAP Project Co-Lead at University of Coimbra Field Tech Lab
The SAP’s nozzles are made of stainless steel—a material that’s heavier but is tough enough to sustain high pressure and heat—and they’re positioned on either side of the drone to help it stay balanced in the air.
The hose is connected to a fire truck, allowing the drone to shoot water without having to actually carry the water. This design makes it possible for the drone’s stream to be constant, without the need for it to replenish its water supply.
Why the SAP Was Made
The usefulness of a drone like the SAP is obvious. Tools that let firefighters put out fires remotely instead of in person help keep them safe, and potentially put out fires more quickly.
This applies to fighting fires from the air, too. Pilots of crewed aircraft working in wildfire operations can fall victim to smoke inhalation, and drones like the SAP help prevent this kind of scenario as well.
Credit: April Reese
But the urgent need for the SAP was driven by wildfires.
Portugal is one of the countries most impacted by wildfires in Europe, due to the abutment of urban development on forests.
In 2017, Portugal had two major wildfires that killed 117 people. In one of those fires alone 66 people were killed and over 130,000 acres were burned.
In 2018, a report came out that found the total area burned per decade in Portugal had doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s, and that it could more than triple in the coming years.
Spurred by these findings, researchers at the University of Coimbra in Portugal partnered with Jacinto, a Portuguese fire truck company, and two other private companies. It took four years of work, but the result is the SAP drone, a prototype that can actually fight fires by shooting water drawn from a nearby, replenishable source.
What’s Different about the SAP Drone
The SAP isn’t the first drone ever made to carry water for fighting fires.
But other water-shooting or water-dumping drones made for firefighting have carried water as a payload from a nearby water source, like a lake or reservoir, flying over the fire and releasing it.
This model allows water to be brought from a farther distance away, making it convenient for fighting wildfires in areas where it could be difficult to bring a truck full of water. But it requires a heavy lift drone capable of carrying enough weight to make a difference in the firefight.
For example, Singular Aircraft makes two versions of a drone called the Flyox, which are more like small airplanes than drones. One version can carry an incredible 3,400 pounds of water and has a two-hour flight time, with a range of 260 miles. And the other can carry 3,000 pounds of water and fly for 4.5 hours, with a range of over 500 miles.
Credit: Singular Aircraft
The SAP, on the other hand, is relatively small and nimble compared to these water-carrying behemoths.
The SAP is made out of carbon fiber and is easy to fly, according to the researchers who designed it. The drone weighs 46 pounds, and has a wingspan of seven feet, and a flight time of 17-24 minutes. (The Flyox II, for comparison, weighs 8,800 pounds and has a 35 foot wingspan.)
We want to make it more user-friendly. It’s so large that it’s very easy to maneuver, but it requires someone very calm and specialized.
– Rafael Batista Mechanical Engineer at Sleeklab
The team that made the SAP is working to make it commercially available. It may take another year or two, but the idea of shooting water from a drone will definitely continue to spread.