Drone Offers New Way to Handle Wildfires

We've seen before that autonomous vehicles have the potential to change the way we handle heated situations. Back in January we featured a firefighting drone called FAROS, developed at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. It's a fireproof aerial robot system designed to help find people inside burning buildings. But it now looks as though drones have even more potential to help us handle fires...

Eric Gregory / Journal Star

Eric Gregory / Journal Star

Researchers at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln have successfully tested a drone that's able to start the controlled burns required to stop a wild fire in its tracks. Carefully initiating burns has always relied on firefighters armed with torches, but, as more and more industries embrace the potential of drone technology, an unmanned aerial system seems like a much safer and efficient way of doing things. 

Friday was the first public test of the drone, developed by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Carrick Detweiler and Sebastian Elbaum. The pair stated that the main objective of the tests was to collect data and identify any issues with the system.

“This is really a learning experience for us,” Detweiler said. “We want to see how well it works in field conditions. We also are really excited to get feedback from all the fire crews that do this regularly to see how we can improve what we’re doing.”

The drone carries several small spheres, each full of an extremely flammable chemical powder and injected with a liquid to cause a chemical reaction a few seconds after it has been dropped. The drone was programmed to fly along a designated route and drop the balls at specific points. 

fire drone

As many consumer pilots will be aware, flight planning and waypoint designation are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “We’re able to program them to do certain things like visiting particular locations in the field and dropping the balls very precisely,” Elbaum said.

As well as helping to prevent and slow down wild fires, prescribed burns are needed to keep invasive plant growth from taking over certain areas. The goal for the team at NU is to eventually develop a drone that can be carried and used by firefighters, complete with heat and pressure sensors, and capable of streaming back live footage from a hot zone. “Check whether it's hot. Check whether it's safe. Start an ignition over there and we can keep these people safer," Elbaum said.