The 2017 Tubs Fire in Santa Rosa, CA, and the subsequent Bear Fire in Boulder Creek, CA, had a life changing impact on Joshua Resnick. As the former Tesla engineer was evacuating his family from the mountains of Santa Cruz, he realized that there had to be technologies that could help firefighters more efficiently. “Because of climate change, we’re seeing a worldwide exponential uptick in fire,” he said. “We can’t just approach an exponential problem with linear technologies. Something radical has to happen.”
That radical idea led Josh to co-found Parallel Flight Technologies (PFT) with Naval Engineer David Adams and California Polytechnic State University Electrical Engineering graduate Bobby Hulter. The trio learned that drones were helping in wildfire management, mostly to provide firefighters with situational awareness. Some drones were being used to assist in prescribed burns to deliver “dragon eggs”. These drones could deploy a limited amount of the eggs that would allow fire management teams to ignite controlled fires, which in turn help prevent widespread wildfires.
However, these drones can only remain airborne for 10-15 minutes, have a limited payload capacity, and are often unable to withstand the extreme environments of a fire scene. Joshua envisioned equipping firefighters with what he calls a heavy-duty pickup truck of the sky, a drone that could provide heavy lift capabilities, longer flight times, and environmental hardiness. With funding from investors like NASA and the USDA, PTF developed the Firefly drone. As explained on the company website, “Parallel Flight Technologies’ Firefly aircraft is a radical UAS combining extreme heavy lifting and long flight duration. New (patent pending) Parallel Hybrid technology gives the platform the capability of lifting its own mass in payload, not including fuel, for over two hours. It is also fully redundant and can continue flying in the event of an engine failure. This opens new possibilities for unmanned logistics, search-and-rescue, firefighting, and heavy sensor applications.”
The Firefly drone is about 3ft tall with a 5ft wingspan. It only needs a team of 2 to be set up for deployment. It currently has a payload capacity of 100lbs, though PFT is working to extend that to a future maximum of 1,000lbs. When carrying the maximum payload, the drone has a 2hr flight time, but a 7hr flight time with a payload of 10lbs or less. The drone has a wide range of sensors, GPS, and thermal cameras that allow it to be flown BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight). All of this means that the Firefly can do what most drones and manned aircraft cannot.
The Firefly can be flown into smoke and at night, situations where firefighting manned aircraft need to be grounded. The drone can be used to transport vital equipment to ground troops and even apply fire retardants. While most drones can deploy up to 400 dragon eggs, a Firefly can carry up to 4,000 to cover up to 2,000 acres in a single flight. “We don’t have workhorses that can bring supplies to firefighters on the front lines or drop off payloads to do controlled burns, and we don’t have drones that can put small fires out,” Joshua said. But this is all going to change as PTF begins its final testing stages of the Firefly drone, a product the team says will be ready by 2022.