Drones Provide Eye-in-the-Sky to Help Fight Fires

Wildfires blackened nearly 8.8 million acres in the United States last year, highlighted in the news by California’s Camp Fire, the deadliest in that state’s history.

One of the many things that make wildfires so difficult to contain is the effect a fire has on local winds, which can move the fire in unexpected directions with virtually no notice. But, now, technology is being tested that may help firefighters keep pace with a blaze – increasing their safety and allowing them to better position their limited resources.

Xiaolin Hu, director of Georgia State University’s Systems Integrated Modeling and Simulation lab, is heading a project that develops drones to collect real-time data about wildfires, including fire front data and wind data in the wildfire area. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding the project.

“Fires generate heat that can have a major impact on local wind/weather conditions,” Hu said. “The constant interaction between fire and atmosphere causes dynamic and local changes in wind speed and direction that are not predicted well by standard weather models or expert judgment. The real time data collected by [drones] can help firefighters by providing fire location and fire spread information – and issue an “early warning” to firefighters if they are in danger.”

Hu and research partners Haiyang Chao, director of the University of Kansas’ Cooperative Unmanned Systems lab, and Ming Xin, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Missouri, are testing their “KHawk” drone over prescribed fires, and building new drones for autonomous sensing, navigation, and control. The new aerial platform features autopilot, thermal camera, and other specialized avionics.

The drones will perform test flights over prescribed fires ranging from 20 to 300 acres every year until 2022 to collect data on fire propagation and fire generated wind. The team is also seeking opportunities to collaborate with Kansas/Missouri Forest Service to fly over non-prescribed wildfires.

The drones will fly autonomously, given real-time wind/fire data and predicted fire spread information, under the supervision of human pilots and control station operators on the ground.

“The ultimate goal is to support the decision making of fire managers and improve safety for firefighters on the ground,” Hu said. “An important aspect of this project is to develop collaboration where fire managers and firefighters work together with drones in collaborative tasks.”

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

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