Aerial fire robots tested at Homestead National Monument

Published: Apr. 22, 2016 at 5:47 PM CDT
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An innovative drone design to ignite prescribed fires in grasslands and forests got its first public test on Friday during a prescribed fire at the Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice.

Developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Carrick Detweiler and Sebastian Elbaum and their team, the unmanned aircraft system ignited 26 acres of restored tallgrass prairie at the National Park Service site, which commemorates one of the first claims for free land filed under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Prescribed fires are routinely used to manage the park's restored prairie land, according to Park Superintendent Mark Engler.

For the test on Friday, trained firefighters set fire to the perimeter around the that was burned, while the unmanned aircraft was used to ignite the interior, typically the most dangerous to light by hand, says Detweiler.

Co-founders of the Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems, or NIMBUS, Laboratory, Detweiler and Elbaum have been working for the past year with a multi-disciplinary team of experts to develop aerial robots small enough to fit in a firefighter's backpack, yet smart enough to navigate a dangerous environment.

"UNL is pioneering this merging of two very risky, highly regulated technology fields: fire and unmanned aviation," said Elbaum. "Imagine them (firefighters) having this in their backpack, pulling it out when they get to the field, being able to operate it with their phone and telling the vehicle, hey, go scout out there...check whether it's hot, check whether it's safe, start an ignition over there...we can keep people safer when they are doing these types of ignitions."

Although they previously tested their device indoors and on private land, the test on public lands on Friday provided an opportunity to see how their unmanned aircraft system would perform in a real fire environment.

It also could open the door for the UNL devices to be used during more extensive fire operations on other public lands.

"We see a lot more interesting research ahead in terms of further automation and safety," Detweiler said.

Prescribed fires are widely recognized as an effective conservation tool that eliminates invasive species, restores native plants and reduces the risk of wildfire.

Elbaum and Detweiler have worked with Dirac Twidwell, a rangeland ecology expert at UNL; Craig Allen, director of Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research; and Lisa Pytlik Zillig, of UNL's Public Policy Center; to address the ecological and policy implications of their unmanned aerial devices. Students James Higgins, Evan Beachly and Christian Laney helped design the vehicles, the ignition mechanism and software.

The devices carry a cargo of ping pong-like balls filled with a chemical powder. Before being dropped through a chute, each ball is manipulated and injected with a liquid that causes a chemical reaction-based flame after several seconds. The devices are programmed to drop the balls in pre-deteremined patterns to control the trajectory of the ensuing fire.

The researchers have made a number of improvements in recent months. They've changed the injected method so components don't wear out as fast, updated the software to improve the user interface and added more sensors to help in navigation and ignition precision.

They want to better automate fire-setting patterns and to perfect sensors that allow the devices to automatically move out of dangerous spots and to find areas they haven't yet burned.

"I think it will be able to do things more reliably and even safer than it did them before," Elbaum said.

"We can use this technology, if it's successful, to put humans out of harms risk in order to safely accomplish the goal," added National Park Service Fire Information Officer Mike Johnson.

In addition to Homestead National Monument of America and UNL, other collaborates included the National Park Service's Midwest Region Fire and Aviation Program and the Service's national-level Branch Of Aviation; and the Department of the Interior's (DOI's) Office of Aviation Services.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave permission for the test after the device was reviewed and approved by NASA, Detweiler and Elbaum said. NASA oversees air transportation research as well as space research.

"The Department would like to recognize the FAA and National Park Service for their forward-thinking ability to recognize the benefits of using UAS during planned fire activities," said the DOI's Office of Aviation Services Director Mark Bathrick.

Jim Traub, an aviation contractor and unmanned aircraft system specialist with the National Park System described the prescribed fire as a "unique and innovative opportunity" to test the UNL technology.

"Unmanned aircraft systems in firefighting have the potential to reduce direct risk to firefighters doing ignition work while reducing cots and making an aerial resource more widely accessible to wildland firefighting efforts," he said.

Elbaum and Detwiler have applied for patent protection for their devices through NU Tech Ventures, UNL's technology transfer entity. After the device was made public in October, they received dozens of inquiries from landowners, conservationists and private businesses. Earlier this spring, they conducted a preliminary test during a prescribed burn of more than 2,000 acres of private land in southwest Nebraska, conducted by the Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance.