Researchers are using autonomous fire-bombing drones to prevent future wildfires

According to data from the National Interagency Fire Center, 2015 was the worst year on record for wildfires in the United States. In the past year alone, the US has experienced well over 50,000 wildfires, which have collectively burned over 11 million acres of land so far. But thanks to some forward-thinking engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we might soon have a new weapon in the fight against forest fires. Their solution? An autonomous fire-bombing drone.

It sounds counterintuitive at first, but the drone doesn’t just haphazardly set the wilderness alight and then buzz back to home base. Instead, this drone is designed to autonomously execute and monitor prescribed burns. Controlled, pre-meditated burns (a common land management practice) help reduce wildfire risk by eliminating dry plant material that could potentially act as fuel for a blaze. Currently, these burns are executed by either a team of people on the ground, or by helicopters; making them time consuming, dangerous, and expensive.

fire drone
Craig Chandler/UNL

To remedy this problem and make controlled burns cheaper and easier, a team of students from UNL developed the Unmanned Aerial System for Fire Fighting, or UAS-FF: an autonomous quadcopter drone that dispenses fire starting balls along a predetermined path. At first glance the balls look like they belong on a ping pong table — but they’ve actually got a bunch of chemical wizardry going on under the hood. Each ball is filled with potassium permanganate powder, and is injected with liquid polyethylene glycol before being dropped. This sets off a slow chemical reaction that causes the ball to burst into flame after several seconds. By dropping a series of these balls along a predetermined pattern, the UAS-FF drone can effectively start a controlled burn.

“The problem that we’re trying to address with this is how to start controlled fires for land management in safe and effective ways,” said UAS-FF co-creator Carrick Detweiler. The UAS-FF system is still a prototype at this point, but the team has successfully performed indoor tests, and hopes to move on to outdoor trials in the next few months. Detweiler said the researchers have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration, and hope to have authorization from the FAA and fire departments for a field test sometime around March of 2016.

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