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PCADS – from water balloons to a killer app firefighting technology

December 29, 2008

December 30, 2008 Man’s engenuity knows no bounds and we are regularly fortunate enough to report on a technological solution that is so clever that it inspires us all to seek inspired responses to difficult problems. Bushfires deliver destruction and terror throughout the world and are often so powerful they defy man’s attempts to control them. In January 2003, Australians watched aghast as a bushfire destroyed 70% of the entire Australian Capital Territory and entered the suburbs of Canberra, the nation’s capital city. When a bushfire needs to be stopped, most countries simply do not have the resources. Until now! The PCADS system was inspired when a boy accurately dropped a water balloon on his father’s head from three stories up. The father contemplated the accuracy of his son’s handiwork and developed an ingenious firefighting technology – the PCADS.

William Cleary began studying the concept after his encounter with the very accurate water-filled balloon. "He was three stories up and I was walking, and he still managed to hit me square in the head," said Cleary, a Boeing engineer. "I thought, why can't we be this accurate with water on fires?"

Cleary subsequently won a Boeing Innovation contest with his concept and landed the $100,000 in research and development funding he needed to take the system to the next level. The assistance of Boeing, and the subsequent involvement of paper products giant Weyerhaeuser, which designed the corrugated cardboard container, have enabled what was originally entitled the Boeing-Weyerhaeuser Precision Container Air Delivery System is now known as simply PCADS.

The Precision Container Aerial Delivery System (PCADS) is a tool that allows airdropping on wildfires, which uses a water-filled plastic bladder stabilized by a wrapper of triple-wall corrugated cardboard material, which can be loaded aboard any cargo plane. When dropped from the plane which can be guided to its target by GPS, the lid parachutes away, delivering 2000 pounds of fire retardant far more accurately then is currently achieved, and with far less risk to the plane and occupants.

Firstly, let’s paint the picture of how bad the bushfire (AKA wildfire) scenario can be. If you’ve never encountered one, it is absolutely terrifying. One thing you probably aren’t aware of if you haven’t been there is “cinder attack” – a bushfire’s incredible heat creates a massive updraft which takes burning debri with it high into the atmosphere and then rains it down for up to 25 miles away, with each cinder capable of initiating its own fire – absolutely frightening. The sky goes black, even at midday, and worst of all it sometimes, simply cannot be controlled.

The Canberra bushfires of 2003 are a prime example. On 18 January 2003, Australians watched as a bushfire entered the suburbs of the nation’s capital city, Canberra. The fire destroyed 70% of the entire Australian Capital Territory, killed four people and destroyed 500 homes. The resources required to fight the fire were simply unavailable. Large amounts of aerial firefighting equipment and expertise was already on loan from Northern hemisphere countries but nature was bigger and stronger by far. Had the fire not changed direction due to the conditions, a far greater tragedy might have unfolded.

This is the main beauty of the PCADS system as it enables the firefighters to bring greater force to bear. PCADS greatly expands the number of planes capable of taking part in firefighting missions because it brings into play any airdrop-capable cargo plane. That is, any type of military-style cargo plane can deliver PCADS without any modification.

As it uses GPS, it also allows planes to be far more accurate in delivering their cargo in concentrated form, from much higher altitudes above fires than those directly dropping bulk water – day or night.

That is, its coverage rates exceed those of all existing firefighting systems and as it uses GPS, it enables firefighting 24 hours a day. Because of the higher altitude versatility of PCADS, the system can be deployed using a multiple aircraft formation to extinguish wildfires of various sizes and patterns in any type of terrain.

Indeed, the company points out that the system turns aerial firefighting into a routine cargo drop enabling many military units to respond immediately to a single major event – military units that would otherwise be sidelined. Using PCADS offers the ability to directly attack a wild fire using standard military airdrop techniques because it employs a standard aerial drop container which is easy for the loadmaster to deploy in great numbers. Targets are assigned Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates which are then translated into precise aerial release points. Instead of using traditional single aerial tanker passes that are only capable of slowing a fire, PCADS could be deployed in multiple aircraft formations to layer coverage to a required level to extinguish a fire. Finally, the entire delivered waterbomb is biodegradable – the box and bladder pieces decompose if mopping up is not an option.

As a photojournalist, Mike’s work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 different print publications, each with a different target audience: sports, automotive, advertising, marketing, design, ad infinitum. Mike has been working in the internet for more than 20 years and was the veteran of five internet start-ups before founding New Atlas in 2002.

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