Drone based firestarters working to protect forest health

With climate change raising temperatures, wildfires have been a growing concern for many countries around the world.  Keeping these fires under control can be an incredibly dangerous job.  Can drones add their own weight to the role?

Researchers at the University of Nebraska are building just such a drone to help to safely manage the growing number of wildfires unfolding around the world.

“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,” the team says.

Robot fire fighters

The team believe that the new drones could eventually take the place of manned aircraft and hotshot firefighting teams that are currently used in wildfire fighting scenarios.

I wrote recently about a project to provide drones with 3D mapping capabilities that allow them to fly themselves, and whilst it isn’t clear whether they will be operated automatically, they will be sufficiently equipped to survive the harsh environments with limited supervision.

“The idea is to provide a safe mechanism for people to perform fire management tasks with less risk and higher efficiency,” the team say.

The drones have already been put through their paces in an indoor environment, and it is hoped that they will be approved for field testing by the FAA early next year.

Fire starting

A central plank of the drones work will be to undertake what is known as prescribed burns.  These are controlled fires used to burn off specified areas of grassland to eliminate invasive species and reduce the risk of wildfire.

They are currently under-utilized because of the understandable safety concerns, both to those involved and those who may get embroiled in a poorly managed process.

The drones have an interesting cargo consisting of pingpong sized balls that are full of potassium permanganate powder.  Each ball is injected with liquid glycol prior to be dropped, which creates fire after a short time lag.

By using drones, it will be possible to drop these balls in a precise pattern over any landscape in a safe and efficient manner.  It will be fascinating to see how they perform when given the green light by the FAA.  Watch this space.

Check out the video below to see the drone in action.



5 thoughts on “Drone based firestarters working to protect forest health

  1. Need this for So CA with our wildfires & all CA. Problem Timing of use winds humidity debris in area thickness of forestation alone Otherwise I say Yes.

  2. So, backburning is what this is, and it's usually accompanied by fire fighters to control it. How would this keep from getting out of control?

    • Firing flaming ping-pong balls from helicopters is actually a standard tool in fighting wildfires when people either can't access the terrain on foot, or it's too dangerous to do so. Helicopters are dangerous enough as it is, but low altitude flying, mountainous terrains, and smoke are all things that make wildfires even more dangerous for helicopters. Not only can these devices potentially eliminate that current hazard, but they may be usable in additional situations too hazardous for helicopters to risk flying in anyway.

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