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
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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)
  • riannas-ric
    5/09/2016 - 08:39 p.m.

    According to the article setting fires helps control fires. This is true because the fires that they start burn the plants so that other fires wont start. "Local and federal officials are interested in the technology because it could help clear overgrown vegetation in rugged, hard-to-reach terrain." That is why starting fires will help control fires.

  • addiey-ric
    5/10/2016 - 04:22 p.m.

    Setting fires controls fires by putting so much fire out there that it goes out. There can only be so much fire. The amount of oxygen will get overwhelming. So it will just put itself out.

  • humbertoc-ric
    5/11/2016 - 11:45 a.m.

    Setting fires controls fires because the technology could help clear overgrown vegetation in rugged, hard-to-reach terrain. The technology are drones that carry balls filled with a chemical powder and potassium permanganate. During flight, the drone pierces the ball with a needle, then it injects it with another chemical, glycol, before releasing it. Here is something that Brittany Duncan said about this project: "We want to know how we could display information to firefighters better."

  • emmagened-1-ric
    5/12/2016 - 10:08 a.m.

    Setting fires control fires because the drones drop these balls and it starts a fire but it's just chemicals, so it would help it. The thing that helps is cargo. In the story it says " 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." So it would control it.

  • afrikab-ric
    5/12/2016 - 10:10 a.m.

    Setting fires control fires because of a certain chemical in it. It is filled with chemical powder,and potassium permanganate. Those two things can start a controlled fire. Which is why, setting fires can control fires.

  • jennab-ric
    5/12/2016 - 10:11 a.m.

    Setting fires controls fires because after something has already been caught on fire it eaves like black stuff behind and then that stuff cant caught fire again. Also in the 3rd paragraph it talks about controlled fires and how they can be way better than an unexpected fire. because when you control a fire you know where it is going but when it is just a unexpected fire you have know idea until you get there. When you set a fire you have already thought the importance of where it is going to go and how far and all that stuff. When its not controlled then all your thinking about is to get it out because you have know idea what is happening.

  • giovannig-1-ric
    5/12/2016 - 10:13 a.m.

    Setting fires controls fires because it eliminates small areas that can easily catch on fire and get rid of it before the area can become larger and cause worse fires.
    The smaller the area is of the flammable material the more contained future fires will become. While this process might seem dangerous to someone who doesn't know much about controlled fires this is a process that saves many lives and homes and costs of damages. Not only will starting these small fires control later fires it will make the outdoor safer for camping, for those who enjoy camping.

  • jaylaw-ric
    5/12/2016 - 10:13 a.m.

    Setting a fire controls a fire because you can see what you have to do with the fire that is already happening. If you make another fire and it doesn't need to happen you can do that to see how to put it out and what is going to happen to the other fire when you make another fire. If you start a fire then it can become a wildfire and that makes the fire bigger and then you can see how to control the fire and then you can see what the weakest thing is in the fire and then you can easily get the fire.if there is already a fire than you can control the fire.

  • tiaj-ric
    5/12/2016 - 10:16 a.m.

    Setting fires control fires because it keeps them together. When there is more fire, it goes to the other fire and unites. If it is surrounded then it has nowhere to go. Of course, fire is bad all together, so it has to be in a place for it nit ti damage anything important or something that doesn't need to be burned.

  • saml-ric
    5/12/2016 - 10:27 a.m.

    Setting fires to control fires makes it so that when you set the controlled fires it takes out easy parts to catch fire so that part won't catch fire. The firemen kill the controlled fire making it unable to burn. Another way is that it can clear out difficult terrain for the firemen so they can get to the fire. To support my answer I gathered this from the text,"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."

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