Fire-Management Drone Under Development by University Researchers

A new drone under development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) could change the way wildfires are fought, as well as encourage the use of prescribed burns for conservation purposes, according to the university.

The firefighting unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is being developed by a multidisciplinary team of UNL experts in drone technology, fire ecology, conservation and public policy.

In recent years, California and other places around the world have been seeing an increasing number of bigger and more intense wildfires, says Dirac Twidwell, a team member and a range ecology expert and faculty member in the department of agronomy and horticulture at UNL.

“Unmanned aerial devices have the potential to carry out key resource management strategies and could help us deal with something as big as the international increase in severe wildfires,” Twidwell explains. “The drones could be a tool to battle Eastern Red Cedar, an invasive tree species viewed as one of the region’s most serious ecological threats. It causes local extinctions of grassland plants and birds, collapses forage production important to the beef industry, and contributes to dangerous wildfires.”

Drone researchers Carrick Detweiler and Sebastian Elbaum say UAS also might be used in place of manned aircraft and hotshot firefighting teams in some wildfire-fighting situations.

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

The team has successfully performed indoor tests on a prototype. Detweiler, a faculty member in computer science and engineering, says researchers hope to have authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration and fire departments for a field test of the fire-starting drone as early as March.

According to UNL, prescribed burns, where grasslands are burned off according to a predetermined plan, are widely recognized as an effective conservation tool to eliminate invasive species, restore native plants and reduce the risk of wildfire. However, they are underused because of perceived safety concerns, the university says.

A recent study from Twidwell’s lab shows prescribed fires are actually less risky to landowners than other commonly used management techniques, but using drones would further reduce the risks posed by lighting prescribed burns by hand and using all-terrain vehicles and suppression vehicles in rough and remote areas.

Elbaum and Detweiler built upon their research as co-founders of the Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems Laboratory to design aerial robots small enough to fit in a firefighter’s backpack, yet smart enough to safely interact with the environment.

The drones carry a cargo of ping-pong-like balls filled with potassium permanganate powder. Before being dropped through a chute, each ball is injected with liquid glycol, which creates a chemical reaction-based flame after 10 to 45 seconds.

The drones would have the ability to drop the balls in a precise pattern over the landscape – on the perimeters and interior of a rectangular plot, for example. Detweiler says the robots could be programmed so they don’t fly into areas that are too hot or windy for safe use.

The research team is seeking grant funding to develop the next-generation prototype with more sophisticated sensing and actuation capabilities, including the ability to operate as a swarm.

Other team members are Craig Allen, research professor and director of Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research, and Lisa Pytlik Zillig, research associate professor at UNL’s Public Policy Center. James Higgins, a mechanical engineering graduate student, designed the prototype’s mechanics, and Christian Laney, a computer science and engineering undergraduate student, was responsible for the control electronics.


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