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Fire-Bombing Drones Keep Firefighters Safe in Prescribed Burns

A project at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has developed a drone equipped with GPS, an infrared camera and 400 tiny “fireballs” that can be used to ignite prescribed burns from a safe distance.

'Fireball drone' sits on a hillside overlooking a prescribed burn
Carrick Detweiler, Nimbus Lab
Prescribed burns are a proven way to reduce the impact of destructive wildfires, but they still come with risks to the firefighters who carry them out. That was the impetus behind a project from the National Science Foundation’s National Research Traineeship (NRT) program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) that uses a drone to drop fireballs to ignite prescribed burns, keeping firefighters out of harm’s way.

"Fireball drone" loaded with balls to ignite prescribed burns
Carrick Detweiler, Nimbus Labs
“Burning is dangerous to people often because you’re on ATVs and rough topography, and we’re in Nebraska. …” professor Craig Allen, director of the NRT program, said in an article on UNL’s website. “Imagine it in the Rocky Mountains, too, how hard it is to get somewhere and how fast flames go upslope in situations where it’s easy to trap people. So, it really made sense to get some way to put fire on the ground that keeps people out of the equation.”

Called IGNIS, the drone was developed by Allen, along with colleagues specializing in agronomy and computer science. IGNIS uses GPS navigation, an infrared camera and a container of up to 400 1.5-inch balls of potassium permanganate that they call “Dragon Eggs.” The drone handler inputs its course; in flight, it injects the balls with antifreeze and they start burning when they hit the ground. IGNIS can ignite 50 to 75 acres at a time. Outside Nebraska, the fireball-dropping drones have been used in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and California.

Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln