The US Forestry service conducts prescribed burns in forests where unwanted fires can ravage drought-stricken areas. Oftentimes these burns are conducted via helicopter, because the locations are remote. But using a helicopter is expensive.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed an aerial robot that could one day do the job.
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The aerial robot is designed ignite as well as monitor fires, saving money and keeping humans out of harm's way.
"Unmanned aerial devices have the potential to carry out key resource management strategies and could help us deal with something as big as the international increase in severe wildfires," team member Dirac Twidwell said in a press release.
Of particular interest is the Eastern Red Cedar, an invasive tree wreaking ecological havoc in the West. The tree has lead to the extinction of local birds as well as grasses important to the beef industry. In addition, it contributes to wildfires.
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The fire-starting drone, developed by researchers Carrick Detweiler and Sebastian Elbaum, carries a cargo of small balls filled with potassium permanganate powder, a chemical compound that has many different uses.
Before dropping a ball to the ground through a chute, the drone injects it with liquid glycol, which creates a chemical reaction that takes between 10 to 45 second to start a fire.
The idea is to program the drone to drop the balls in a predetermined and pre-mapped pattern over a designated area.
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So far, experiments to test the drone's capability have only been conducted indoors. The researchers need to obtain authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration and fire departments to take their tests outside. They hope to obtain such permissions as early as March.