Unmanned Aerial System Prototype Ignites Prescribed Fire in Nebraska

USGS Cooperative Research Unit Corner

Unmanned Aerial System Prototype Ignites Prescribed Fire in Nebraska

The USGS Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in partnership with the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab (NIMBUS) and the Applied Complex Adaptive Systems Lab have designed a drone prototype that drops balls filled with combustible material to ignite fire as part of prescribed fire management. The paper, Smokey comes of age: unmanned aerial systems for fire management, is published in the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The U.S. Forest Service has been exploring Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to reduce the costs and risks tied to fire monitoring and has worked extensively with the Federal Aviation Administration and fire agencies for approvals.

"Despite the challenges associated in working with drones and fire simultaneously, the technologies developed have enormous potential to improve natural resource and fire management, and reduce risks," says Craig Allen, Unit Leader for the USGS Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

The advances in UAS technology is a way to expand many benefits identified for monitoring wildfire behavior, weather conditions, and smoke to prescribed burning operations, Allen and other researchers noted in the publication.

"We envision a future where a swarm of autonomous and interacting UAS carries out fire management operations, reducing risks and costs while enhancing capabilities in both wildfires and prescribed fires," Allen and his coauthors wrote.

U.S. federal agencies spent $13 billion from 2006 to 2014 on fighting wildfires, which was more than the total amount of money spent fighting wildfires in the previous 25 years. Wildfire management costs now account for more than 50 percent of the USFS budget, eating into funds that previously supported scientific investigations meant to enhance fire management.

Fire management professionals balance the need to control wildfires to protect lives and property, while also starting prescribed fires to maintain fire-dependent ecosystems and to reduce the size of, and occurrence of, wildfires. Prescribed burning is a conservation tool that keeps many ecosystems healthy, including the Great Plains.

"In the absence of fire what we see are invasions of eastern red cedar and as a result, major changes in livestock production potential, grassland birds, and endangered species in these landscapes," says Dirac Twidwell, assistant professor and a rangeland ecologist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL).

Yet, despite good intentions and billions of dollars invested, large wildfires are becoming common. Current fire management techniques are no match for the challenges requested of fire managers, and new innovations are needed. Fire management teams across the world are beginning to explore the potential of UAS for monitoring fires as one avenue of technological innovation.

Currently, controlled burns are started by hand or helicopters that drop delayed ignition balls, a process that can be dangerous and is costly. The UAS prototype, however, sets the stage for remote operation for igniting controlled burns with improved characteristics (e.g. greater flight range or payload size).

The prototype designed by the UNL team is small, fast, and portable. In a controlled setting on the UNL campus, the prototype robot took flight while the cargo fed balls into a chute. Each ball was rotated and injected with alcohol to start a chemical reaction before being dropped to the ground. Seconds later, the ball ignited.

"UNL is pioneering the merging of two, highly regulated, and rapidly evolving technology fields: fire and unmanned aviation," Sebastian Elbaum, Professor in the Science and Engineering Department at the University of Nebraska said.

The research benefits graduate students; James Higgins of the NIMBUS Lab says, "It's fun to see the design go from concept to computer ? build phase to physical testing." A key design challenge, Higgins noted, was developing the software systems, electronics, and mechanical systems to fit in a small space, and yet be able to be moved and operated safely in harsh fire conditions.

Lead author Twidwell emphasizes that the research, recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Ecological Society of America, demonstrates the great potential UAS technologies have to benefit fire management activities with less risk to firefighters. For example, the authors of the study noted that manned aviation-related fatalities account for 26 percent of all firefighter deaths in the United States since 2000. Wildfire tragedies, such as the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona, USA, that killed 19 elite wildland firefighters, have heightened awareness regarding the risks to suppression crews. UAS technologies are usually less costly as well.

There are potential benefits of, but also barriers to, applying UAS technology for wildfire management and the conservation of fire-dependent ecosystems. In the future, said Allen and his co-authors, aerial robots or drones could help agencies monitor and protect landscapes from fires. More revisions are needed, but Nebraska researchers hope the innovation will spread as an alternative for range management of fires.

Before, during, and after wildfire disasters, the USGS provides tools to identify wildfire risks and reduce subsequent hazards, such as landslides. As fires are contained, USGS scientists help to assess their aftermath to guide the re-building of more resilient communities and restoration of ecosystems. This future vision includes using UASs as integral management components of the world's most fire-dependent ecosystems, such as the Great Plains in North America or the Serengeti in East Africa.

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The ONB features articles from Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units across the country. Working with key cooperators, including WMI, Units are leading exciting, new fish and wildlife research projects that we believe our readers will appreciate reading about. A variation on this article was posted on usgs.gov and written by Dawn Childs, Communications Specialist, USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units and Craig Allen, Unit Leader, Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

August 12, 2016