AIAA 2021-2022 Undergraduate Responsive Aerial Firefighting Aircraft; The Social and Political Powers in Aerial Firefighting

Le, Jason, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Quinlan, Jesse, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Seabrook, Bryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

This Undergraduate Thesis Portfolio explores the design of a firefighting aircraft and the aerial firefighting industry. Firefighting aircraft are essential tools for fighting wildfires, but they are facing engineering challenges that are making it difficult for them to operate. These challenges stem from the accumulation of sociotechnical issues that have built up in the industry over the last several decades. As such, the capstone portion of the portfolio focuses on the conceptual design of a next-generation aerial firefighting aircraft that will replace the aircraft currently in use. As for the STS portion, the research examines how social and political powers have introduced issues and shaped the aerial firefighting industry to be where it is today. These two projects are intertwined as the STS research is meant to find out why the development of a new aircraft is needed for the industry.
The capstone project involved the conceptual design of an aircraft made specifically for firefighting purposes in response to the Request for Proposal (RFP) from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Current aerial firefighting aircraft are old and retired aircraft that have been retrofitted for firefighting. The use of these aircraft presents risks and inefficiencies when aerial firefighting missions are conducted, as many of these aircraft weren’t designed to handle these tasks. Thus, the project required a multidisciplinary team to use state-of-the-art knowledge of the aerospace disciplines studied in the undergraduate curriculum to ideate, size, and design suitable aircraft configurations. The team went through an iterative design process to refine the aircraft configurations until all of the requirements set forth in the AIAA’s RFP were satisfied. Ultimately, the goal of the capstone design project was to create a new aerial firefighting aircraft that is more reliable, affordable, efficient, and safe. The technical report documenting the design process was submitted to the AIAA where experts in the field will critique the design and provide constructive feedback. The capstone project also provided the team with valuable experience in working as a group to produce a complex aircraft design by using techniques and tools commonly used by NASA.
The STS research component involved an examination of the social and political powers that have influenced the aerial firefighting industry. As global warming continues to worsen every year, the threat of wildfires in the United States will continue to increase as well. To combat these fires, firefighting agencies make use of aircraft that have been retrofitted for the sole purpose of fighting wildfires. However, many of these aircraft are extremely old and inefficient in conducting their firefighting missions; their continued usage has come under scrutiny after several fatal crashes occurred in the last few decades, and now there are calls to reform the industry as a whole. The research paper focused on answering the question: How have social and political actors undermined the aerial firefighting industry? The goal of the paper is to analyze the different social and political actors involved with aerial firefighting to identify how they have influenced the industry’s problems. This research is conducted with the actor-network theory (ANT) to understand the roles of different actors within the aerial firefighting network and identify specific problems found in the aerial firefighting industry that resulted from the actions of the social and political actors. The results of this paper should inform key industry decision makers with findings about key issues that can allow them to learn from the past mistakes and weaknesses of the industry as they seek to produce a safer and more effective future firefighting aviation program.
By conducting the capstone project in tandem with the STS research, I have come to realize that there is more to engineering than just the technical; it is important to understand how society affects technology and how technology affects society as well. When I was first exposed to my capstone assignment, I understood the engineering problems that drove the need to design a next-generation aerial firefighting aircraft. As I became more familiar with the type of technology I was working on, I learned more about the aerial firefighting industry as well. This was when I began to question why these engineering problems existed and as a result the STS research topic was born. Doing the STS research along with my technical project has made me more open-minded about engineering in general. It taught me to look beyond the numbers and understand the importance of how the rest of society (non-engineers) influence the way technology is used.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Actor-Network Theory, Aircraft, Firefighting, Social, Political

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering
Technical Advisor: Jesse Quinlan
STS Advisor: Bryn Seabrook
Technical Team Members: Del Irving, Aaron Huynh, Andrew Wheatley, Andreas Damm, Christopher Kwon, LeeYung Chang, Matteo Harris

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