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, drones. It 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 to ignite 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, 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. 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 and 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 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. 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, 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. 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, 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?
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COMMENTS (72)
  • levenicel-Orv
    5/06/2016 - 01:03 p.m.

    wow I cant believe this there using drones to control fire I wonder is it for wild fires or just for a regular fire cause that's one thing to think about like if it was for wild fires don't you think it should take a lot of drones and if it was just for a regular fire it would take one or two drones right that's just one thing to think about

  • TehyaWhite-Ste
    5/06/2016 - 01:26 p.m.

    Setting fires helps controls fires because they learn what they can do in certain situations and conditions.

  • macj-ter
    5/06/2016 - 01:46 p.m.

    I think its a cool project and worth the investments to make them.

  • samanthas-1-ste
    5/06/2016 - 01:58 p.m.

    The fires they are setting are filled with chemicals that actually smother the real fire. I think it is a great idea to control wildfires considering it is coming into summer and the chances are higher.

  • paigei-ter
    5/06/2016 - 02:27 p.m.

    I think it is worth the time and money to keep drones from starting a fire. Drones are very dangerous, they 1st started out as making planes crash and distracting pilots. Now this, i definitely think we should keep a close eye on these drones. Drones are a great toy for kids but if you really want to use these as weapons that is horrible and u should be ashamed of yourself. I really hope that these drones won't cause a lot of problems in the future.

  • michaelo-ter
    5/06/2016 - 02:31 p.m.

    Yes its very cool to help save nature

  • huntern-ter
    5/06/2016 - 02:51 p.m.

    Drones have came so far.

  • brycenc-ter
    5/06/2016 - 02:52 p.m.

    I don't understand why they would use drones to set fires to control them,I can see that they are controlling on causing fires.

  • m.c.b-ter
    5/06/2016 - 03:14 p.m.

    Its cool that they keep making different drones so drones could be the future

  • makr-ter
    5/06/2016 - 03:16 p.m.

    That cool how they do it. Drones have came so far in life.

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