These fireball-throwing wildfire drones are at the forefront of prevention

Originally published: Nov 17 ’22 09:36 ET

(CNN) — As US wildfires have grown larger and deadlier in recent years, a company is deploying drones and fire-starting “dragon eggs” to prevent extreme wildfires and save the lives of firefighters.

Drone Amplified, a Nebraska-based startup, uses unmanned aerial technology, or drones, to improve on one of the oldest and most effective methods of wildfire prevention: 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 mandated 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 “performing a very low-intensity burn that basically burns off the dead leaves and sticks that would cause large wildfires if they died later.” dry out in summer”.

The company was founded in 2017 by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering professors. In 2020, it received a total of $1 million in research and development grants from the National Science Foundation and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

Drone Amplified, a Nebraska-based startup, is using unmanned aerial technology to improve on one of the oldest and most effective methods of preventing wildfires: prescribed burns.

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“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 existed for centuries (and was even used by Native Americans to fight wildfires), it can sometimes be tedious and risky for firefighters who perform it today.

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According to Detweiler, firefighters often have to hike or drive an SUV through dense forest or mountainous terrain and carry a drip lamp to start small fires in specific, remote locations. “Then you have helicopters with a full crew flying very low and slow over the fire,” he added, adding other methods for prescribed burns.

“About a quarter of all wildland firefighting fatalities are aviation-related,” Detweiler said. “And for me, that was really a motivation to start Drone Amplified and get these systems into the hands of firefighters.”

While he said a helicopter can cover a larger area than a drone when fighting wildfires, 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 what are known as “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 it with glycol it causes a chemical reaction – resulting in a fire. A single 50-pound drone can carry around 400 of these fireballs.

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According to Detweiler, the drones allow firefighters to work away from flames and in areas that are difficult to access due to terrain or visibility. Also, firefighters can use the technology “when it’s dark, when it’s smoking, and when other planes can’t be out there.”

Apps control the drones. You can also allow the fireballs to drop in very specific locations. Prescribed burns require precision. It’s a critical element because it’s vital to preventing fire escapes.

Escapes are rare. The US Forest Service reports only one escape for every thousand burns. Still, the results can be devastating. Two recent controlled burns in New Mexico escaped and resulted in the state’s largest wildfire on record.

Detweiler said his company’s equipment aims to prevent fire escapes through the use of thermal imaging cameras, visual cameras and other technology that allows firefighters to see through smoke.

“Our app also allows the firefighter to set up geofences [boundaries] to prevent ignitions outside of this range,” 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 fire truck in the future.

The CNN Wire
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