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 that could eventually help in fighting grass fires - drones.
 
A team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln flew an unmanned aircraft over the prairie at the Homestead National Monument of America, dropping ping pong-like balls filled with a chemical mixture to ignite brush-clearing grass fires.
 
Local and federal officials are interested in the technology because it could help clear overgrown vegetation in rugged, hard-to-reach terrain, said Michael Johnson, a spokesman for the National Park Service.
 
The balls are filled with a chemical powder, potassium permanganate, before they're 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 and 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 and hummed toward the horizon through a smoky haze. Minutes later, it released the balls one at a time, and they sparked a series of small fires that quickly grew and 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 and 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, and carries a little more than one pound of cargo. Depending on the software used, the drones developed so far have cost between $6,000 and $8,000 apiece. That is according to Jim Higgins, 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, a computer science and engineering professor, 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 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 that burned a total of 786 square miles, 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, said Brittany Duncan, 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 (38)
  • alexr-6-ric
    5/09/2016 - 11:22 a.m.

    Setting Fires controls fires because it would burn the things in the way. Like small trees or bushes and it would make it difficult for the wildfire to spread. In the article they said that they let go of the balls, and when it does it sparks little fire and it starts to spread and destroy the little things in its way. The reason it's like that because the chemicals they put into the balls and when it's dropped on the floor it goes into fire.

  • kristinaj-ric
    5/09/2016 - 11:23 a.m.

    Setting fires help control fires because it will help control fires in hard to reach places. It would clear out bushes and small trees and it would make it harder for wildfires to spread. "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 and make it more difficult for wildfires to sweep through an area.". This little drone does more than it looks like it can do. Researchers hope that this drone will eventually be used.

  • jazlynt-1-ric
    5/09/2016 - 11:28 a.m.

    Setting fires helps control fires because it's practice for the drones to put out fires. In the article it says
    "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 and make it more difficult for wildfires to sweep through an area." It also says " During a severe drought in 2012, Nebraska saw 1,570 wildfires that burned a total of 786 square miles, an expanse nearly seven times the size of Omaha." And that is why it's good to set fires to control fires.

  • skyeh-ric
    5/09/2016 - 01:38 p.m.

    Setting fires control fires by kind of knowing what could happen. You start it and you can handle it. You have more control over it, and it's easier.'"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."'.

  • daleg-ric
    5/09/2016 - 01:40 p.m.

    Setting fires controls fires because if there is a spot of land that eventually with cause a wildfire setting a fire there before hand will stop the wildfire from happening because there will be nothing to burn. The fires that are being set are small fires that are controlled because of the way the chemical balls are dropped on the area of where they want the fire to be. If the dead brush and other components that are flammable catch fire before the wildfire starts then there will be less brush to burn so the wildfire can be put out right away or not even happen at all.

  • joed-ric
    5/09/2016 - 01:41 p.m.

    Setting fires control fires by putting the fire in one exact spot so that the firefighters and others can do their job easier. If the fire is put into one exact spot, the fire would not spread as fast as if the fire was not controlled, the fire would spread tremendously. Each drone can also help firefighters have a better handling of putting the fire out because of how easy it would be to get to the fire because the fire would be controlled from the drones. In the text it says ''Local and federal officials are interested in the technology because it could help clear overgrown vegetation in rugged, hard-to-reach terrain...''

  • emiliv-1-ric
    5/09/2016 - 04:10 p.m.

    Setting fires control fires by getting rid of overcrowding trees and bushes so that when their is a wild fire, it is hard for it to spread. If there are too many trees in one area and a wildfire occurs it will spread on to whatever is near and destroy lots of land. Therefore there are drones dropping ping pong like balls in a certain area with a chemical called glycol which sets the balls to spark. The researcher's intentions are so "That would clear out brush and small trees and make it more difficult for wildfires to sweep through an area".

  • jonathanm1-ric
    5/09/2016 - 04:21 p.m.

    Setting fires controls fires by, helping the firefighters by controlling the actual fires. It also helps stop the spreading of fire. So when they drop a ball, it creates all the small fires then it all comes into one and then it also get fire from the wildfire and then it starts making it smaller. So it will stop the growth of the wildfire and make it easier for the fireman.

  • briannap1-ric
    5/09/2016 - 04:27 p.m.

    Setting fires controls fires because the one fire that is already set, will consume the other fire, and then turn into one fire. In the text, it says when you set a controlled fire, then it would wipe out trees, and therefore make it harder for any fires to start in that designated area. Scientists says that this a cheaper, more efficient way to help out with forest fires. They are still studying this method to see if it really would be a safer way to come about this situation.

  • briannec-ste
    5/09/2016 - 05:16 p.m.

    It would be very helpful to have these, even if it were just to scout out the places where a wildfire could take place.

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