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Autonomous Helicopters Fight Fires

Alamedan Max Brodie hopes to make Alameda Point the home for Rain.

Alameda could be home to a life-saving technology of major historical importance—autonomous helicopters that can contain wildfires within 10 minutes of ignition. A company called Rain is on a mission to make this a reality.

Alameda Post - One of Rain's autonomous helicopters
One of Rain’s autonomous helicopters. Photo courtesy

The company’s CEO, Alameda resident Max Brodie, is no stranger to wildfires. In 2003, he stood on the shore of Okanagan Lake with his parents as the Okanagan firestorm burned their home and everything they knew. Every time smoke-filled skies blow into the Bay Area, Brodie recalls the setbacks and the tribulations his family faced. He thinks of the families in California that are facing similar or worse realities. Last year alone, a total of 6,318 wildfires in California burned 2.2 million acres, according to CalFire. This year, in just under eight months, there have been 5,828 wildfires in our state, with total acreage burned still being calculated—and the fire season is just getting started.

The destruction of land and homes and lives is just part of the picture. In 2020, California wildfires emitted an estimated 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to a California Air Resources Board report. That’s roughly equal to the greenhouse gases 24.2 million passenger cars emit in a year, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculator.

Obviously, in the face of severe drought and increasing wildfires, something has to be done. So Max Brodie started Rain to find a solution. Brodie believes that traditional firefighting methods are crucial but insufficient given the number and intensity of wildfires today. “It doesn’t matter how many people or aircraft or tankers you throw at the problem, our (current) solutions do not scale,” he said in an interview last year. Integrating new technology into fire operations is necessary and urgent.

Brodie’s solution is to stop wildfires when they first start. Because every wildfire starts small, Rain is building a network of autonomous helicopters to stop wildfires before they grow out of control and become catastrophic. As soon as an ignition is detected, all nearby aircraft respond to the ignition coordinates with enough retardant to contain the fire in its incipient phase.

This is different from using aircraft to fight fires that already have spread. This is a way to stop or contain fires when they first ignite. Rain has developed the first autonomous helicopter to contain wildfires and they are working with two California county governments to deploy this technology as soon as possible. To meet their deadlines, Rain needs to fly more frequently, which means flying locally. The ideal spot to do that is Alameda Point.

Rain has collaborated with the Port of Oakland, the FAA, Oakland International Airport, and the City of Alameda to receive permission to fly above the old runways at Alameda Point. The company received authorization from the city in July, which is essential to meeting their deadlines. They will be conducting testing outside of the California Least Tern breeding season, away from their habitat, using only water (no chemicals or retardants), and no real fires.

The company hopes to make Alameda Point their permanent headquarters, according to operations manager Daniel Wholey. “Students across the nation may one day read in their history textbooks how Alameda Point held the solution that ended climate change’s greatest threat,” Wholey said.

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