Researchers use drones to control fires
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. 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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How does setting fires control fires?
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  • alexanderc-6-bar
    5/16/2016 - 08:20 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.

  • reidi-4-bar
    5/19/2016 - 03:38 p.m.

    Researchers in Nebraska are experimenting how well drones can fight grass fires. This would be better because we could have more acces to areas for fires and less risk of firefighters getting injured. The drones cost about 6,000 to 8,000 dollars a piece so it would be cheaper than hiring firefighters. I think it is interesting that drones are becoming modern day firefighters.

  • maxwellc-3-bar
    5/19/2016 - 10:27 p.m.

    Setting fires controls fires because by clearing out one area to ensure that another, larger fire doesn't continue to get fuel, the larger fire will die out, or be directed to an easily accessible place for fire rescue personnel. As the text 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." I think that using drones in this kind of work would not be the optimal idea.

  • billiem-1-bar
    6/06/2016 - 06:56 p.m.

    Setting fires can help control fires by making the fire go in the direction of the powder released from the drone. I found this article interesting because of the way people are finding new technologies to help other people.

  • Steve0620-yyca
    7/12/2016 - 06:10 p.m.

    I think that it is a great idea how researchers used drones to control fires. They did this by putting balls filled with chemical mixtures into the drones. To be specific, the ball is filled with a chemical powder called potassium permanganate. Before it is released, the drone injects the ball with a chemical called glycol. This could also be done with a helicopter but drones are cheaper and safer. It can be used to clear trees and bushes. Drones could be used with fire trucks to stop the fire and put it out. I hope that researchers would come up with more great ideas.
    Setting fires can control fires by blocking a fire's path. For example, if there is a wildfire, you could burn the flammable things in the pathway already so the flame would have nothing to burn.

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