Wearable tech takes the heat off wildfire-fighting pilots

Mitacs researchers analyze pilot stress during wildfire emergencies

Now, a team of Mitacs researchers is working to understand the risks involved with aerial firefighting and is developing customized wearable and in-flight technologies that could improve pilot safety during wildfire seasons. Their goal: develop a system to monitor a pilot’s physical and cognitive conditions using the latest in wearable technologies to empower the pilot and flight operations to only deploy when it’s safe to fly.

It all started when Conair Aviation, an aerial firefighting company based out of Abbotsford, BC, wanted to develop better fatigue and risk management systems for their pilots. They wanted a system that could give the pilots another way to monitor their stress and fatigue throughout the fire season and enable the Conair team to mitigate the risks associated with them. Long flying shifts and high-stress wildfire scenarios can push pilots to the brink, jeopardizing their personal safety.

They partnered with researchers from UBC Okanagan and Camosun College for a series of multidisciplinary Mitacs internships, coordinated with help from the Consortium for Aerospace Research and Innovation in Canada (CARIC). Victoria-based Latitude Technologies was also brought in for their expertise in monitoring the plane’s equipment for stress during the high-stakes conditions of a wildfire.

One of the researchers on the team is Marie O’Brien from UBC Okanagan. Marie is applying the latest research in computer algorithms and data analysis to wearable technologies, including a technique called fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic is an approach used for complex problems involving human reasoning as it allows researchers to develop an algorithm based on “degrees of truth” rather than the usual “true or false” that computers use to make decisions.

“Fuzzy logic provides a method to manage the pilots’ physiological and cognitive data and estimate the pilot’s performance,” Marie explains.

A device collects info such as the pilot’s heart rate, flying time, and fatigue; meanwhile, other onboard instruments monitor flight duration, altitude, and airframe stress. By applying fuzzy logic using the data collected from the technology, the pilot can glean better information to decide if they’re still in top physical condition to fly.

The completed system will monitor pilot’s cumulative stress, and, in conjunction with the operations team, can alert the pilot if it’s time to return to the ground.

This will help Conair Aviation manage pilot fatigue during the fire season based on the pilot’s actual workload. The current federal aviation regulations manage fatigue based on sleep research only and require pilots to have forced rest days.

“What often happens, in our case, is that we are forced to ground rested pilots when they should be out flying to maintain their flight currency during water-bombing procedures. This is one of our biggest safety concerns in aerial firefighting. The safer approach would be for us to manage the workload, rest and stress with each pilot as well as our whole fleet team.

“This technology will allow pilots to monitor their levels of alertness or general health and participate in their own fatigue management. It’s a far more realistic approach to managing fatigue during the firefighting season,” says Leigh Barratt from Conair Aviation.

For Marie, the project has given her valuable experience applying her research. “Working with Conair has been a great opportunity to apply my research to a real-world problem in the field. It feels great knowing I am making a difference in the safety of firefighting pilots.” 


Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbia for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.

Photo credit: Conair Aviation

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