A Drone That Ignites Fires To Prevent Wildfires

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A new drone under development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln could change the way wildfires are fought – and encourage the use of prescribed burns for conservation purposes. This development team wants balance back to the woodlands — by dropping fire-starting balls from a flying drone that will ignite controlled burns.

The drone would have the ability to ignite and monitor fires in remote areas. Novel technology would allow it to operate in harsh environments with limited supervision, enhancing the capabilities of fire management personnel

A prototype of the tool has the drone carrying a hopper filled with ping pong-sized balls of potassium permanganate, which are injected with glycerol before dispersal. The potassium permanganate oxides the glycerol, creating a little ball of fire. 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.

Unlike the publicly tumultuous relationship between amateur photography drones and wildfires, UAVs that drop flame balls would actually be welcomed in the fire control community.

The bursts of fire these devices deploy are similar to methods currently used for starting prescribed fires — crucial in preventing the full-on inferno of wildfires by clearing out dead brush before it over-accumulates. Plus, a controlled burn improves the ecological health of forests, allowing jack pines and other trees to open their cones to spread seeds, and curb the spread of invasive plants. The big problem with a controlled burn is that you need someone up close to start it.

With a UAV, people get to stay further away from the hot zone, and it comes at a fraction of the expense of a helicopter.

The team has successfully performed indoor tests on a prototype. Carrick Detweiler, a faculty member in the computer science and engineering department, 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 of the fire-starting drone as early as March.

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