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The Unmanned Aerial System for Fire Fighting, or UAS-FF, is under development by a multidisciplinary team of UNL experts in drone technology, fire ecology, conservation and public policy.
The aerial robot would have the ability to ignite and monitor fires in remote areas. Novel technology would allow it to operate in harsh environments with limited supervision, enhancing the capabilities of fire management personnel
“The idea is to provide a safe mechanism for people to perform fire management tasks with less risk and higher efficiency,” said Sebastian Elbaum, a computer science and engineering professor and drone researcher.
The team has successfully performed indoor tests on a prototype. Carrick Detweiler, a faculty member in the computer science and engineering department, said the researchers have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration and hope to have authorization from the FAA and fire departments for a field test of the fire-starting drone as early as March.
Elbaum and Detweiler built upon their prior research as co-founders of the Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems, or NIMBUS, Laboratory to design aerial robots small enough to fit in a firefighter’s backpack, yet smart enough to safely interact with the environment
The drones carry a cargo of ping pong-like balls filled with potassium permanganate powder. Before being dropped through a chute, each ball is manipulated and injected with liquid glycol, creating a chemical reaction-based flame after several seconds.
A similar method now is used to start fires for conservation purposes with helicopters and hand-held launchers, Detweiler said.
“We wanted to use proven technology that the prescribed-burn community is already familiar with,” he said.
The drones would have the ability to drop the balls in a precise pattern over the landscape – on the perimeters and interior of a rectangular plot, for example.
Detweiler said the robots could be programmed so they don’t fly into areas that are too hot or windy for safe use.
The team is seeking grant funding to develop the next generation prototype with more sophisticated sensing and actuation capabilities, including the ability to operate as a swarm.
That would be cool , maybe the could get one that has a repeater for better radio communications