SEI Industries is a name that may not be as familiar to many as their flagship product, the Bambi Bucket, used around the world in over 100 countries to fight forest fires. The big orange bucket dangling from under helicopters is synonymous with fighting wildfires and has become the industry standard for aerial firefighting in many countries worldwide.
Invented in 1978 by SEI Industries founder Don Arney, a concept initially constructed in his garage; in a home not far from where SEI Industries is now based in Canada, the Bambi Bucket began commercial production in 1982. The first bucket contained a single drop valve and activation through a switch on the pilot cyclic. Despite the many iterations since then, Director of Firefighting Operations Sergio Fukamati states that the single drop valve nearly 40 years later remains the top-selling product in their lineup of Bambi Buckets due to its simplicity of operation.
Since its inception, the Bambi bucket has undergone continuous improvements and growth, much like the company, reflecting new technologies and current industry requirements. SEI has grown from its inception in 1978, having a staff of just one, to employing 84 people at their corporate headquarters. The company also contracts with dozens of others worldwide in a growing network of 14 service centers strategically placed to service customers with the highest needs.
The first Bambi bucket produced was 270 liters (70 gallons) and would become the cornerstone for a product line that boasts nearly 40 models – with the largest Bambi bucket capable of holding 9,800 liters (2600 gallons.) Bambi buckets are currently operating on smaller helicopters like the Bell 206 to large helicopters such as the Boeing CH-47 Chinook and the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk.
Bambi Buckets have been used across every spectrum of the aerial firefighting industry, from small private operations to large government contracted firefighting operations to military forces around the world that are called in to fight fires when conditions outgrow the capabilities of contracted and state operations.
As the industry has grown over the decades, so too has SEI moved with the times, developing two core products throughout their line of Bambi Buckets. The Standard Bambi single drop bucket is available in twenty (20) models. The newer ‘Bambi Max’ lineup of buckets is available in fourteen (14) models and allows multiple drops of water on fires through a gated valve that many operators now utilize worldwide to increase operational effectiveness and improve helicopter safety. Multi-drop capability allows the pilot to load-shed and maximize the water load throughout the fuel cycle.
The Next Level
Using current technology to advance the product lines is a core principle for the company, said Fukamati “the company has a continuous improvement program in place. When we launch a new product, we take it to market, and then we learn from operators on the ground at the frontline of operations. We then bring their input back to our people who continue to develop and evolve our products, so our customers benefit.”
Speaking of improvements, Fukamati detailed that Bambi accessories like the PowerFill are becoming more popular. The PowerFill Snorkel is an external pump mounted to the outside of a Standard Bambi Bucket that allows operators to fill the bucket in as little as 18 inches of water. The Powerfill Max uses the same technology, but the pumps are located inside the bucket. When the operators use a PowerFill, they can utilize shallow water sources like streams that are closer to the fire.
Stepping it Up
The “NewGen” is the next version of the Standard Bambi Bucket that SEI will be producing. The new bucket design incorporates a new dump valve resulting in reduced wear of the purse strings. It also has a new control head, which is shorter, more straightforward, and provides better flight stability. SEI will begin alpha testing a NewGen 2732 model Bambi bucket in 2021.
The “Eclipse Bambi,” another product in the new line-up will be the first fully collapsible Bambi bucket with multi-dump capability. It combines the collapsibility of a Standard Bambi bucket, with the multi drop capability of a Bambi Max bucket. It will be a good fit for type II and type III commercial operators that need to collapse their bucket down to a smaller diameter for storage.
One of the challenges to working with a bucket is checking fill levels, making sure you have taken on enough water during each dip. Currently, the checking method is completed entirely visually. In a single pilot scenario, the pilot relies on visual reference to see if the bucket is filled by looking out the window of the aircraft or for multi-crewed missions, reliant on the crew to check for a successful load.
With that in mind, the SEI team went to work to try and improve that shortcoming. It is developing the newest Bambi Bucket that will shortly begin beta testing, the i-Max, or Intelligent Max Bambi Bucket. This bucket will, through installed sensors and an in-cabin touch screen, show the pilot what the water load is, and in the case of a multistage drop operation, tell the pilot what capacity is left after each drop stage.
“The i-Max Bambi system incorporates a load sensing head, like a load cell, built into the control head of the bucket slung under the helicopter. This converts the load signal into volume, transmitting to the master controller unit inside the helicopter. The pilot can use the user-friendly touch screen to program what they want to achieve for a particular drop. The pilot can decide to drop 70% of the load across three dumps or any number of other variants. The pilot can even control the speed of the dump by controlling the valve opening from the touch screen” said Fukamati.
The i-Max system is the first of its kind for the aerial firefighting industry and provides some challenges for the SEI team. With the added functionality of the in-cockpit user interface screen, comes the added work of certifying the system through regulatory agencies. With previous Bambi Buckets not having a permanent fixture inside the helicopter, there was no certification requirement. Fukamati says that approaching such a task would not be possible without operators’ help in the field. Certifying a piece of new equipment is being done with the assistance of an operator in Spain, who has been participating in testing and certification with EASA.
Once the initial Alpha testing was completed in 2020, the team went to work on improving the system based on operator feedback and is aiming for certification of the i-Max system in 2021.
Maintaining the Fleet
With thousands of Bambi Buckets in circulation worldwide, SEI needs to make sure that customers have access to repairs and parts promptly. Sometimes that means not waiting to ship a unit back to Canada for service. Over the years, the company has continued to build on existing relationships and partner with MRO and service facilities to develop a worldwide network of Bambi Bucket Service Points in areas that are readily accessible to their customers. These 14 centers are targeted in high-use regions such as Australia, Europe, South America, Asia and North America.
Servicing buckets worldwide has also become a concern due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Fukamati, apart from some early supply chain issues, it has now become manageable thanks to their network of service centers and dedicated staff at their corporate headquarters. The challenges of working in the COVID-19 environment, while causing some additional hiccups, have been overcome by introducing social distancing protocols in their offices and manufacturing areas and have caused minimal issues to customers in the field.
Fukamati stated that their team continues to innovate based on customer needs in addition to improving on bucket technology. This includes development currently in process to provide 120 Volt, AC PowerFill pumps, currently available only in 28 Volt, DC power. The new AC pumps will hopefully be available in 2022.
Another project for the SEI team that is nearing completion is a revamp of their company website that will save customer’s time and improve navigation. The new site will simplify searches and provide ready access to technical specifications and all available data to assist customers in everything from bucket selection to maintenance needs and identification of international service points.
Whatever the aerial firefighting industry’s future holds, SEI will continue to improve Bambi product reliability and develop new products and services to meet customer’s needs.