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Fire-starter drone could help control spread of wildfire

Thu 5 Nov 2015

Unmanned Aerial System for Fire Fighting

A group of students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are working on a fire fighting drone, which starts helpful blazes to aid in controlling extreme forest and rangeland fires.

Using the unmanned aerial system, the team hope to deliver the benefits of a ‘prescribed burn’, such as recycling nutrients back to the soil, burning invasive plants, minimising the spread of pests and disease, and battling wildfire. Dirac Twidwell, a range ecology expert at the department of agronomy and horticulture who helped develop the robot, published a recent paper explaining the relatively low risk of prescribed flames compared with other management techniques.

The researchers detailed a specific use case – fighting the spread of eastern red cedar, a plant which is smothering natural vegetation and grasslands in parts of Nebraska and other states.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 16.20.47Weighing just a few pounds and measuring about 2 feet across, the drones carry a cargo of little balls which contain potassium permangate powder. Before the capsules are released through a chute, they are injected with liquid glycol causing a chemical reaction which produces fire after 30 to 40 seconds. The researchers explained that the drones can drop the flaming balls in a plotted ignition pattern over a chosen area. Faculty member at the university’s computer science and engineering department, Carrick Detweiler, explained that the drones could also be programmed to avoid areas that are too hot or windy.

“What we envision is someone who can carry this in their backpack and stay away from the field but can direct it,” said computer science and engineering professor Sebastian Elbaum.

Currently in early stages of development, the drones have not yet travelled outside but testing will begin ‘in the wild’ next spring. In the future, the team sees the drone swarms starting and monitoring prescribed flames, saving dangerous human intervention and avoiding the need for costly helicopter work.

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