Mixing drones with fire sure sounds like a dangerous idea, but under close control this unlikely pairing could have a beneficial environmental impact. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) have been developing a drone that ignites controlled burns from the air, and the team has now carried out real-world testing of the technology with a view to minimizing risks to conservation crews and avoiding out of control wildfires.
The university’s fire-starting drone has been under development for almost two years. The aircraft is fitted with a chute and loaded up with balls containing potassium permanganate powder. As each ball is prepared to be launched toward a target area on the ground, it is injected with liquid glycerol which kicks off a fire-starting chemical reaction within 60 seconds of it hitting the deck.
Trained firefighters started by burning the perimeter of the designated area. The drone then flew about 200 yards (180 m) into the area, before turning around and deploying the ignition balls at eight second intervals on the return leg. The drone then floated over the area gathering data on fire conditions that the researchers will study to continue improving the technology.
“A tool like this might be one of the answers to making these fires safer,” says Mark Engler, superintendent at Homestead National Monument. “This is an important test. It is important to us to help UNL develop this technology.”
Definitely falls into the “what will they think of next” category. Easy to imagine how bigger drones with more payload and range could be managed by an airborne or ground-based control center to help start backfires. The ability of the drone to carry other sensors and transmit data from the scene without risk to a crew adds to the value proposition.