Drones

Fire-dropping drone could ignite and monitor controlled burns

Fire-dropping drone could igni...
The fire-starting drone during an indoor test
The fire-starting drone during an indoor test
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The UAS-FF, with its cargo of "fire balls"
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The UAS-FF, with its cargo of "fire balls"
The drone initiates a chemical reaction in the balls, before dropping them to the ground to ignite
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The drone initiates a chemical reaction in the balls, before dropping them to the ground to ignite
Balls of chemical powder are injected with alcohol to start a reaction
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Balls of chemical powder are injected with alcohol to start a reaction
A ball ignites seconds after being dropped
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A ball ignites seconds after being dropped
The fire-starting drone during an indoor test
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The fire-starting drone during an indoor test
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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.

A ball ignites seconds after being dropped
A ball ignites seconds after being dropped

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.

Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Controlled Burn by UAV

View gallery - 5 images
2 comments
AndrewTomer
this is not a great idea; abuse/theft of this equipment could start raging fires in urban settings. can you say "Santa Ana winds" coupled with wide-area drops, and no perps were seen?
Stephen N Russell
Need this for So CA with our wildfires & all CA. Problem Timing of use winds humidity debris in area thickness of forestation alone Otherwise I say Yes,.