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. 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 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. 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 that 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?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (15)
  • michaelm1-ver
    5/06/2016 - 03:48 p.m.

    At first I thought these were to stop fires, but I guess they could be used to make them.

  • sebastianr-6-bar
    5/10/2016 - 12:26 a.m.

    Setting fires controls fires by directing the flames in a certain direction with the chemical powder filled balls in a specific place. I think this is a great advancement for controlling fires but only if it is used right. If this is not used correctly it could make a fire a lot worse than it already is.

  • tylerl-ver
    5/10/2016 - 03:54 p.m.

    By having the drones have a preset pattern it can control how the fire spreads. It will make it easier for the firefighters to fight the fires.

  • mayaw-6-bar
    5/10/2016 - 04:50 p.m.

    Setting fires controls other big fires because the land is dry, so the big fire can't catch where controlled fires have already been. In paragraph 6, the article states that, "They (the balls made of potassium permanganate and glycol) sparked a series of small fires that quickly grew and merged into one." Since the small fire is controlled, when the bigger fire gets there the firefighters can put out the controlled fire, and this would stop the bigger fire from moving further because it can't catch where the small fire has already been. Therefore, setting fires controls other big farmers because the land is dry, so the big fire can't catch where the controlled fires have already been. I liked this article because I like to know the new advances that technology is creating.

  • michaelg-ver
    5/11/2016 - 01:18 p.m.

    I love how they do this. The fires are set to clear any brush or grass that could catch on fire from a nearby forest fire. The is a pretty ingenuous idea if you think about it.

  • carsonb-2-bar
    5/12/2016 - 08:56 p.m.

    Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln flew a drone over the prairie at the Homestead National Monument of America, dropping ping pong-like balls filled with a chemical mixture to start a grass fire. Doing this could help clear overgrown vegetation in hard to get to location. If this works, firefighters could start small fires and control them. Then, if a large fire starts, there will be less fuel for the fire to use and the fire would not be able to cross over the burned area. I liked the article and thought it was interesting. I especially liked the idea of using these drones in remote areas. I also think it might be a good idea for firefighters to carry the drones with them when fighting a fire. They could stop or slow down a fire before it gets out of control.

  • levanted-ric
    5/12/2016 - 10:02 p.m.

    How setting fires control fires, is by the chemical balls that puts them out. The chemical balls are contained with potassium permanganate and injected with glycol which ignites after it falls."The mixture ignites one to two minutes later. The technology is already used by helicopters to start controlled burns."

  • seans-2-bar
    5/12/2016 - 11:55 p.m.

    The act of setting a fire controls fires because the new fire will spread across an area and burn all of the fuel that the original fire would need to continue to cause chaos, as earlier stated "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 article provided useful information about a topic that I was unfamiliar with.

  • averyd-ver
    5/13/2016 - 01:34 p.m.

    This can control them because then there isn't dry brush that could catch fire and spread all over before people realize.

  • lilyg-2-bar
    5/16/2016 - 07:16 p.m.

    Setting fires controls fires because it partly has to do with the chemical balls and it depends on how much surface area and where the fire is. "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." I think this is interesting because I didn't know that they were working with drones on how fires are caused and effected.

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