Researchers use drones to control fires A drone designed to ignite controlled grass fires comes in for a landing in a field at the Homestead Monument of America in Beatrice, Neb., on Friday, April 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Grant Schulte)
Researchers use drones to control fires
Lexile

Researchers in Nebraska have tested a new tool. They are using drones. They could eventually help in fighting grass fires.
 
A team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln flew an unmanned aircraft over the prairie at the Homestead National Monument of America. It dropped ping pong-like balls. They were filled with a chemical mixture. It ignited brush-clearing grass fires.
 
Local and federal officials are interested in the technology. It could help clear overgrown vegetation in rugged, hard-to-reach terrain, said Michael Johnson. He is a spokesman for the National Park Service.
 
The balls are filled with a chemical powder, potassium permanganate. Then they are loaded into the drone. During flight, the aircraft pierces the ball with a needle. Then it injects it with another chemical, glycol, before releasing it. The mixture ignites one to two minutes later. The technology is already used by helicopters to start controlled burns. But researchers note that the drone is cheaper and more portable.
 
"You could afford one of these on the back of your fire truck. Whereas you probably can't afford to have a full-sized helicopter parked at your fire station," said Carrick Detweiler, a member of the Nebraska research team.
 
The drone is about two feet wide with six rotors. It is programmed to drop the balls in a preset pattern to control how the fire spreads. On April 22, the unmanned aircraft rose out of the grass. It hummed toward the horizon through a smoky haze. Minutes later, it released the balls one at a time. They sparked a series of small fires. Each quickly grew and then merged into one.
 
Researchers hope the technology eventually could be used to set controlled fires in hard-to-reach places. That would clear out brush and small trees. It would make it more difficult for wildfires to sweep through an area.
 
The drone is the fourth prototype created by the university's Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems Laboratory. It carries up to 13 balls. The drone drops them from roughly 65 feet in the air. Each drone carries a little more than one pound of cargo. Depending on the software used, the drones have cost between $6,000 and $8,000 apiece. That is according to Jim Higgins. He is an engineering graduate student who has helped with the project. Universities in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Switzerland are exploring similar technology.
 
Higgins said researchers have had to work out some kinks. In earlier tests, the balls exploded. Another time, one caught fire before it was released from the drone. Another limiting factor is the wind. The lightweight drone could not be used in high winds, which sometimes stoke wildfires.
 
Sebastian Elbaum is a computer science and engineering professor. He said firefighters also could eventually use drones to find hotspots and gather other key information about wildfires.
 
"It's very, very exciting stuff," Elbaum said. "Today, firefighters have maybe a shovel, maybe their gloves and their helmets. Imagine them having this in their backpack, pulling it out and telling it, 'Hey, go scout out there. Check whether it's hot. Check whether it's safe."
 
The project began two years ago. It began as a way to prevent wildfires in Nebraska and other Plains and western states. During a severe drought in 2012, Nebraska saw 1,570 wildfires. They burned a total of 786 square miles. It is an expanse nearly seven times the size of Omaha. The combined costs of ground-level firefighting, aerial suppression and assistance from other states cost Nebraska more than $11 million that year.
 
Researchers will use the April 22 test to examine how fire crews might use drones in the future. This is according to Brittany Duncan. She is an assistant computer science professor and member of the Nebraska team.
 
"We want to know how we could display information to firefighters better," she said.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How does setting fires control fires?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (5)
  • jenniek-bel
    5/10/2016 - 02:00 p.m.

    Setting fires controls fires because then the fire cant spread.

  • carmi-rya
    11/13/2016 - 06:35 p.m.

    Setting fires helps control fires. In the text it says 'It could help clear overgrown vegetation in rugged, hard-to-reach terrain'. Based on what I read the drones release potassium permanganate in balls. This chemical ingnites the fire. The purpose is that if a unexpected fire starts it will not be so big because the purposly ingited fires wull have already burnt the area. They use the drones to start fires in hard-to-reach terrain. AltogetherIi think in the future drones will help us tremendously.

  • sophiah1-rya
    11/13/2016 - 06:36 p.m.

    Setting fires helps control dangerous fires. In the text it says setting fires helps because of 'overgrown vegetation in rugged hard-to-reach terrains.' The drones help set purpose fires by releasing 'potassium permanganate' which is a special chemical released in balls. Based on what I read drones are important because of how they help everyone to stay safe so no dangerous fires can come eg; bushfires.

  • amelial1-rya
    11/13/2016 - 06:38 p.m.

    Setting fires control fires because it 'would clear out brush and small trees. It would make it more difficult for wildfires to sweep through an area.'Dry bushes and small trees result in wildfires which make it easier for the wildfire to spread. Green healthy plants make the fire harder to spread, so when the dry plants are burnt it will be less likely for a big wildfire.

  • liamk1-rya
    11/13/2016 - 08:52 p.m.

    How does setting fires control fires? "The balls are filled with a chemical powder, potassium permanganate. Then they are loaded into the drone. During flight, the aircraft pierces the ball with a needle. Then it injects it with another chemical, glycol, before releasing it. The mixture ignites one to two minutes later."
    So from the text we know that the drones carry these "special balls" Which ignite About two minutes after they are dropped, so they can make a ring of fire around the dangerous wildfire.Which means when it reaches the burnt area it stops spreading minimising the damage caused by a fire.

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