The makers of an old workhorse helicopter named Elvis are converting their venerable flying machine into an autonomous robot. Aircraft maker Erickson and helicopter giant Sikorsky are working together to retrofit the cargo helicopter into a flying robot, one that could both fight forest fires and resupply military missions, all without risking the life of an onboard pilot.
Elvis is an S-64 Air Crane, the commercial adaption of a military cargo helicopter that first flew in the 1960s. In commercial service, these helicopters found a life hauling logs, in an approach to forestry billed as minimally invasive logging.
Beyond hauling trees away, Air Cranes have been outfitted with forest fire-fighting equipment, able to quickly fill up a 2,650 gallon belly tank of water in just 45 seconds, and then disgorge those contents on a forest fire.
Why do this? Converting workhorse helicopters to autonomous, robot-piloted machines can save lives, while still fulfilling that their firefighting or sky-trucking promise.