Fire-dropping drone could ignite and monitor controlled burns

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The fire-starting drone during an indoor test(Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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A team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is developing a new drone that could be used to prevent wildfires by igniting and monitoring controlled burns remotely. The drone could be cheaper and safer than existing practices while also being able to operate in more harsh, rugged environments.

Unlike drones we've seen that are designed for helping to suppress fires on ships and elsewhere, this prototype is all about fighting fire with fire.

"The idea is to provide a safe mechanism for people to perform fire management tasks with less risk and higher efficiency," says Sebastian Elbaum, a computer science and engineering professor and drone researcher.

The Unmanned Aerial System for Fire Fighting, or UAS-FF, is a small drone equipped with a cargo of what looks like ping pong balls. But each ball is actually filled with potassium permanganate powder and is robotically rotated and injected with liquid glycol aboard the drone seconds before being dropped through a chute onto a target area on the ground. The chemical reaction between the powder and liquid glycol causes the dropped ball to burst into flame after several seconds.

A similar method is currently used to start fires for conservation purposes using helicopters and hand-held launchers, but helicopters can be costly to use, especially for private land owners, and manual methods can be dangerous, according to Carrick Detweiler from the UNL team.

Prescribed burns for grasslands and other ecosystems are often used as a conservation and land management tool, to eliminate invasive species and reduce risk of wildfire by eliminating excess fuels that could add to the severity of an eventual wildfire.

A UNL study found that prescribed fires, often perceived as dangerous, are actually less risky than other techniques and using drones further reduces the risk of starting fires by hand or all-terrain vehicle in remote or hard-to-navigate areas.

Using drones also offers the added advantage of being able to drop the ignition balls in a precise pattern, and they can be programmed to stay away from areas that are too hot or windy. The drones could also be used in place of manned aircraft or hotshot teams of firefighters that parachute into certain fire-fighting situations.

The team says it is working with the Federal Aviation Administration and fire departments, to be able to do a field test of the drone's fire-starting capabilities as soon as March of next year. So far, a prototype of the UAS-FF has been successfully tested indoors, which you can see in action in the video below.

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