UNL researchers dropping fireballs from UAS for fire mangement

Unmanned aerial systems research under way at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has ignited the interest of fire managers across the Great Plains. Cross-curriculum research teams at UN-L are using UAS to drop fireballs which would be used for prescribed burns and fire management. The teams have developed a prototype that uses a Firefly UAS to drop ping-pong-sized plastic balls which are injected with potassium permanganate powder with glycol. The balls ignite within 60 to 90 seconds of injection.

Using UAS to drop the fireballs is safer than having people on the ground using a torch to start the fires or using helicopters to drop fireballs, said Carrick Detweiler, a UN-L computer science professor and head of the UN-L Nebraska MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab. “Definitely, by removing a person from the equation, getting farther from the fire, there is less danger for people involved,” Detweiler said. “Right now, most of the fires are ignited by manual torches. This is significantly safer than that.”

Besides being safer than starting fires on the ground with torches, using UAS also allows individuals to start fires in rough terrain that would be difficult and dangerous to access from the ground. It’s important to do prescribed burning–burns that are pre-determined–on public and private lands to control invasive species such as Eastern red cedar in the grassland and rangeland of the Great Plains, said Dirac Twidwell, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln ecology professor and rangeland scientist who is part of the research team.

“It’s a very rewarding and interesting project. It’s immediately seen by the fire managers as a way to improve part of what they do,” Twidwell said “You don’t even have to try to market it to fire managers. They see the utility. They wanted this technology yesterday.” Meanwhile, ranchers also are excited about the technology, Twidwell said. Some ranchers already are employing UAS technology on their operations and “this is a different side of that for them,” he said.

The technology the team developed also could be used to fight wildfires, team members said. The research team envisions using swarms of semi-autonomous UAS to replace the need for firefighters to be close to the wildfires. Some of the UAS could be used as scouts to help determine when and where it is safe to fly the UAS that are dropping the fireballs and also to identify zones that would be dangerous for firefighters, the UN-L research team said.

Uses for the UAS technology the UN-L research team has developed is not limited to firefighting and fire management in the United States, Twidwell said. The technology also could be used to manage ecosystems across the globe, including places such as Western Australia, the Mediterranean, and southern Africa.

“We see the utility much more vast as the research moves forward,” Twidwell said.