Testing drones to help fight wild fires

By  | 
View Map

Beatrice, Neb. (WOWT) - The idea is to get incendiary orbs to rain down from the sky, ignite on contact with the earth and carefully cut swaths of flame. How cool is that! Oddly, it's all in the interest of conservation.

The system to do this was put to the test Friday at Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice. Drones were used to drop balls of flammable fluid that can position fires exactly where they're needed.

The point is to use unmanned aerial systems (drones) to set prescribed fires. "Prescribed" is the key word here. That's where the conservation comes into play.

Homestead routinely uses prescribed fires to manage restored tall grass prairie at the site. Prescribed burns are widely recognized as a conservation tool to manage invasive species and prevent wild fires.

This year, they’ve agreed to let UNL drone researchers Sebastian Elbaum and Carrick Detweiler test their drone. "The balls in this basically shoot up here and then they drop into the mechanism, so we will have it fully loaded out there," said Detweiler.

Fire crews from Nebraska and South Dakota were on hand to make sure the flames didn’t get out of control. "This small of a unit we could do easily," said Kenn Perreault with Black Hills Wild Land Fire Module. "In the future, once they work out all the bugs, it might be a good aerial platform for some more remote areas that people can't get to on foot." Or on an ATV into rugged or remote terrain and it's cheaper than helicopters.

According to the park superintendent, over the past 11 years five people have died fighting wild land fires nationwide. This research could save lives. "Badlands National Parks has got some mesa tops that are hard to get folks up on top of," said National Park Service Fire Information Officer Mike Johnson. "We could use this technology to burn the mesa tops and not send a firefighter up a steep embankment to get to the top and then try to find a way to get them safely off."

It's illegal to fly even a basic drone in national park lands without a special permit. Government agencies in Washington, D.C. were called on to give Friday's drone use clearance.