These fireball-dropping wildfire drones are on the frontlines of prevention
Nov 19, 2022, 2:00 PM
(CNN) — As US wildfires have grown larger and deadlier in recent years, one company is using drones and fire-starting “dragon eggs” to help prevent extreme wildfire and save firefighters’ lives.
Drone Amplified, a Nebraska-based startup, is using unmanned aerial technology, or drones, to improve one of the oldest and most-effective methods of preventing wildfire: prescribed burns. This technique refers to the controlled application of fire by a team of experts to reduce hazardous fuel in areas prone to wildfires. “More prescribed fires mean fewer extreme wildfires,” according to the US Forest Service.
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Carrick Detweiler, founder and CEO of Drone Amplified, told CNN that this method works by “doing a very low intensity burn that will basically burn up the dead leaves and sticks that would cause major wildfires when they dry out later in the summer.”
Two University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering professors started the company in 2017. In 2020, it was awarded a grant totaling $1 million for research and development from the National Science Foundation and Nebraska Department of Economic Development.
“We can reduce these huge wildfires by using more fire, when it’s safe to do so,” Detweiler added.
While the technique of prescribed burns has been around for centuries (and was even used by Indigenous Americans for wildfire management), it can be laborious and risky at times for firefighters carrying it out today.
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Firefighters often must hike or ride an all-terrain vehicle through dense forest or mountainous terrain, carrying a drip torch to start small fires in specific, remote locations, according to Detweiler. “Then you have helicopters with a whole crew on board, flying really low and slow over the fire,” he added of other methods for prescribed burns.
“About a quarter of all wildland firefighting fatalities are related to aviation,” Detweiler said. “And for me, this really was a motivation to start Drone Amplified and get these systems into the hands of firefighters.”
While he said a helicopter can cover a larger amount of area than a drone when fighting wildfire, he notes that firefighters can also deploy “tens or thousands of our systems for the same cost as a helicopter.” A drone from the company costs about $80,000.
The wildfire drones carry so-called “dragon eggs,” or fireballs that ignite when they land on the ground. “They have potassium permanganate,” Detweiler said of the dragon eggs, adding that when you mix this with glycol it starts a chemical reaction — resulting in a fire. A single 50-pound drone can carry some 400 of these fireballs.
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The drones allow firefighters to work at a distance from flames, according to Detweiler, and in areas that are difficult to reach due to terrain or visibility. Moreover, firefighters can use the technology, “when it’s dark, when it’s smokey, and when other airplanes can’t be out there.”
Apps control the drones. They can also allow the fire-starting balls to be dropped in very specific locations. Prescribed burns require precision. It is a critical element because it is crucial for preventing fire escapes.
Escapes are rare. The US Forest Service reports just one escape for every thousand burns. Still, the outcomes can be devastating. Two recent controlled burns in New Mexico escaped and led to the state’s largest wildfire on record.
Detweiler said his company’s equipment aims to prevent fire escapes through the use of thermal cameras, visual cameras and other technology that lets firefighters see through smoke.
“Our app also allows the firefighter to put in geofences [boundaries] to prevent any ignitions outside of that area,” he added.
The US Forest Service and other agencies are already using Drone Amplified. Detweiler said he hopes to see the technology on the back of every firefighter’s truck in the future.
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