Skybase, an aviation technology company founded in 2017 and based in Canterbury, New Zealand, has developed technology allowing pilotless planes to fight bushfires. In its first iteration of development, the company is using New Zealand-manufactured Fletcher aircraft that was originally designed for agricultural aviation. The company aims to convert traditional aircraft into drones by integrating advanced artificial intelligence systems into aircraft, allowing pilots to operate the planes remotely from the safety of a computer screen on the ground.
The unmanned aircraft is aimed at being able to be deployed even in adverse conditions, such as poor weather or low light, allowing them to drop large quantities of water or fire retardant on flames and hotspots.
In May 2022, the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand granted Skybase initial testing certification to conduct remotely operated test flights with a pilot on board. While the ultimate goal is for the planes to be fully autonomous, they currently rely on the supervision of pilots.
During the testing phase, the remote pilot must be qualified to operate a Fletcher aircraft but can be located anywhere in the world. However, initial operations are operated remotely from the company’s base at Rangiora Airport outside Christchurch.
Skybase’s technology, called SOFI, has the potential to be used in various industries, including agriculture, mapping, surveillance, cargo operations, first responders, medical evacuations, and natural disaster responses. The company plans to roll out SOFI commercially in 2024, with individual countries’ testing and certification of the technology to follow with unknown certification dates.