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The USGS Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in partnership with the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab (NIMBUS) and the Applied Complex Adaptive Systems Lab have designed a drone prototype that drops balls filled with combustible material that ignites fire as part of prescribed fire management.

Move over Pokémon Go. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) have developed a steamy HOT drone prototype that drops ping pong-sized balls filled with combustible material that ignites fires as part of prescribed fire management.

OK, this is not a location-based augmented reality video game because it serves a practical purpose, note the scientists who invented the prototype, researchers at the USGS Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in partnership with the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab (NIMBUS), Applied Complex Adaptive Systems Lab, Nebraska Game and Park Commission, Homestead National Monument of America, National Park Service's Midwest Region Fire and Aviation Program, National Park Service Branch Of Aviation, Department of the Interior's (DOI's) Office of Aviation Services. After NASA approved the prototype, the Federal Aviation Administration gave permission for testing.

Watch video about the project:

The U.S. Forest Service has been exploring Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to reduce the costs and risks tied to fire monitoring and has worked extensively with the federal Aviation Administration and fire agencies for approvals.

“Despite the challenges associated in working with drones and fire simultaneously, the technologies developed have enormous potential to improve natural resource and fire management, and reduce risks,” says Craig Allen, Unit Leader, Nebraska Unit.

The advances in UAS technology is a way to expand many benefits identified for monitoring wildfire behavior, weather conditions, and smoke to prescribed burning operations, Allen and other researchers noted in a publication released this week in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“We envision a future where a swarm of autonomous and interacting UAS carries out fire management operations, reducing risks and costs while enhancing capabilities in both wildfires and prescribed fires,” Allen and his coauthors wrote.

Operators are able to ignite fires from safe vantage points far from flame fronts
Operators are able to ignite fires from safe vantage points far from flame fronts. Photo by Craig Allen, USGS. 

Hot Ticket -- Fire Management in a Changing World

U.S. federal agencies spent $13 billion from 2006 to 2014 on fighting wildfires, which was more than the total amount of money spent fighting wildfires in the previous 25 years.  Wildfire management costs now account for more than 50 percent of the USFS budget, eating into funds that previously supported scientific investigations meant to enhance fire management.

Additionally, fire management professionals balance the need to control wildfires to protect lives and property, while also starting prescribed fires to maintain fire-dependent ecosystems and to reduce the size of, and occurrence of, wildfires. Yet, despite good intentions and billions of dollars invested, large wildfires are becoming common.

Current fire management techniques are no match for the challenges requested of fire managers, and new innovations are needed. Fire management teams across the world are beginning to explore the potential of UAS for monitoring fires as one avenue of technological innovation.

Hot on the Trail -- From Design to Testing

Currently, controlled burns are started by hand or helicopters that drop delayed ignition balls, a process that can be dangerous and is costly. The UAS prototype, however, sets the stage for remote operation for igniting controlled burns with improved characteristics (e.g. greater flight range or payload size).

The prototype designed by the UNL team is small, fast, and portable. In a controlled setting on the UNL campus, the prototype robot took flight while the cargo fed balls into a chute. Each ball was rotated and injected with alcohol to start a chemical reaction before being dropped to the ground. Seconds later, the ball ignited.  

The UAV / fire team From Left, Allen, Twidwell, Detweiller, Higgins, and Elbaum. Image: Brittany Duncan, Univ. of Nebrask
The UAV / fire team From Left, Allen, Twidwell, Detweiller, Higgins, and Elbaum. Image courtesy of Brittany Duncan, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

"UNL is pioneering the merging of two, highly regulated, and rapidly evolving technology fields: fire and unmanned aviation," Sebastian Elbaum, Professor in the Science and Engineering Department at the University of Nebraska said.

The research benefits graduate students--James Higgins of the NIMBUS Lab says, “It’s fun to see the design go from concept to computer--build phase to physical testing.” A key design challenge, Higgins noted, was developing the software systems, electronics, and mechanical systems to fit in a small space, and yet be able to be moved and operated safely in harsh fire conditions.

Strike While the Iron is Hot -- Smokey Comes of Age

Prescribed burning is a conservation tool that keeps many ecosystems healthy, including the Great Plains. “In the absence of fire what we see are invasions of eastern red cedar and as a result, major changes in livestock production potential in these landscapes, grassland birds, and endangered species,” says Dirac Twidwell, assistant professor and a rangeland ecologist at UNL.

Fight Fire with Fire

Close up of UAV design; UAV ignites controlled fires remotely

Lead author Twidwell emphasizes that the research, published this week in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Ecological Society of America, demonstrates the great potential UAS technologies have to benefit fire management activities with less risk to firefighters and usually less costly to boot.  For example, the authors of the study noted that manned aviation-related fatalities account for 26 percent of all firefighter deaths in the United States since 2000. Wildfire tragedies, such as the Yarnell Hill Wildfire in Arizona, USA, that killed 19 elite wildland firefighters, have heightened awareness regarding the risks to suppression crews.

There are potential benefits of, but also barriers to, applying UAS technology for wildfire management and the conservation of fire-dependent ecosystems.

Catching Fire, Not the Hunger Games

In the future, said Allen and his co-authors, aerial robots or drones could help local and national agencies monitor and protect forests and rangeland from fires. More revisions are needed, but Nebraska researchers hope the innovation will spread as an alternative for range management of fires. "We see a lot more interesting research ahead in terms of further automation and safety," Detweiler said.

Before, during and after wildfire disasters, the USGS provides tools to identify wildfire risks and reduce subsequent hazards, such as landslides. As fires are contained, USGS scientists help to assess their aftermath to guide the re-building of more resilient communities and restoration of ecosystems.

This future vision includes using UASs as integral management components of the world’s most fire-dependent ecosystems, such as the Great Plains in North America or the Serengeti in East Africa.

Learn More

Watch video (courtesy UNL) about the UAV "fire" project:

Journal Article:

Journal Hub:

An Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy (Secretarial Order 3336):

National Park Service Aviation Program:

National Park Service Fire and Aviation Management:

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab (NIMBUS):

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Video Controlled Burn by UAV:

U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Aviation Services:

USGS National Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Project Office:

USGS Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit:


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