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This startup battles blazes with a fleet of firebombing drones

As the land burns, Dragon Eggs rain down from the sky, each one exploding into flames as it hits the ground. An apocalyptic scene from some Game of Thrones-type fantasy show? Nope. It’s the real-life efforts of a company called Drone Amplified, and — while it might sound counterintuitive — the idea is that bombarding the land with these miniature fireballs can actually help fight blazes like the devastating wildfires that recently ravaged the West Coast.

“The Dragon Eggs are a brand name for a specific type of what is more generally known as an ignition sphere,” Carrick Detweiler, CEO of Drone Amplified, told Digital Trends. “The ignition spheres have been used for decades by manned helicopters to perform prescribed burns and backburns on wildfires. One of the main ways to contain wildfires is to use backburns to remove the fuels — [such as] dead wood — in advance of the main wildfire. This then allows firefighters to contain and put out the wildfire.”

The ignition spheres contain potassium permanganate and, while they’re capable of exploding into flames when required, they’re safe to handle and transport. This means that they can be carried on a drone and then used to disperse over areas.

“Our system, called IGNIS, carries 400 ignition spheres and is attached to a drone,” Detweiler said. “When commanded by the operator, IGNIS punctures and injects the ignition sphere with glycol. This starts a chemical reaction that will cause the ignition sphere to ignite 30 to 60 seconds later. IGNIS contains onboard sensing and intelligence to safely and quickly inject the spheres at up to 120 per minute. This allows firefighters to precisely and safely start controlled burns while staying out of harm’s way.”

This is no hypothetical solution, either. Digital Trends first covered Detweiler’s work in 2015 when he was an engineer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln researching the problem. But leap forward half a decade and the U.S. Forest Service has been using IGNIS extensively on many of the wildfires in California, Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere in 2020. In the process, they have dropped hundreds of thousands of the ignition spheres in an effort to contain the wildfires. The Department of Agriculture estimated that IGNIS saves more than $14,000 per day, compared to using a manned helicopter to perform the same job.

The fact that wildfires continue to be an issue suggests that Dragon Eggs on their own aren’t the answer. But they certainly have a valuable part to play in the solution — and that’s something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a fireball-spitting drone.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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