National Park Service plans to use a drone to ignite a prescribed fire

Homestead National Monument expects to ignite a prescribed fire using an unmanned aerial system, or drone.

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Univ of Nebraska fire start drone

Above: University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Dirac Twidwell, left, Sebastian Elbaum, and Carrick Detweiler with their unmanned aerial system for supporting prescribed burns. Elbaum and Detweiler are professor and assistant professor of computer science and engineering, respectively. Twidwell is an assistant professor and rangeland ecologist in UNL’s School of Natural Resources. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communications.

The prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument four miles west of Beatrice, Nebraska will include a live test of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS). The UNL system is a greatly scaled down version of a manned helicopter aerial ignition device. A multidisciplinary team of UNL experts in micro-UAS technology, fire ecology, conservation and public policy is developing this unmanned aerial system for supporting prescribed and wildland fire operations. We first wrote about their fire-igniting drone at Fire Aviation in October, 2015.

The park has received all of the approvals necessary to use the drone on this project, including the NPS Regional Office, their Washington office, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Jim Traub, National Park Service (NPS) Unmanned Aircraft System Specialist, said:

UAS’s in firefighting have the potential to reduce direct risk to firefighters doing ignition work while reducing costs and making an aerial resource more widely accessible to wildland firefighting efforts. The National Park Service is pleased to facilitate this unique and innovative opportunity with UNL, for this test of a sUAS in a fire situation.

Homestead National Monument of America, the NPS Midwest Region Fire and Aviation Program, and the NPS National Aviation Offices are collaborating with UNL’s Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Laboratory and the Department of Interior Office of Aviation Services (OAS) for this operational test and evaluation of the integration of sUAS into wildland fire operations. The goal with the Homestead Prescribed Fire is to conduct a live test of the sUAS consistent with the intent of 2015 UAS Technology Overview approved by then NPS Associate Director of Visitor Resource Protection, Cam Sholly; Department of Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary, Kim Thorsen; and Office of Aviation Services, Director Mark Bathrick.

Their system uses the same principle for the ignition source as the much larger devices used in full sized helicopters — plastic sphere dispensers. The spheres look like ping pong balls, but they are manufactured with a chemical inside. When the dispenser injects a second chemical into the ball it creates an exothermic reaction causing it to burst into flame about half a minute later after it has been ejected from the machine. When the helicopter, manned or unmanned, drops the spheres, they can ignite any receptive fuels on the ground about 25 to 40 seconds later.

Now that Homestead National Monument has all of the plans and approvals in hand, they are just waiting for a weather window that meets the criteria in their prescribed fire plan. They hope to get it done before May 15 of this year.

I asked the park Superintendent, Mark Engler, if he was worried that the drone might drop a sphere outside the prepared control lines:

No, I know we have to be alert that that could happen, but we have already put in a fireline, and we made it extra wide this time. We took an extra step and actually removed the cut grass [from the line after it was mowed]. We think the risk here is very low. And because the risk is so low, we feel that this is an appropriate place to conduct this test.

mowed fireline
A control line for a prescribed fire at Homestead, spring, 2016. NPS photo.

The park has been using fire for years to help maintain and restore their tall grass prairie. They have identified a 26-acre unit for this particular project. Homestead first started using prescribed fire in the 1980s. Mr. Engler said they have the “oldest restored prairie in the National Park Service”.

The plans call for 15 people to be actively involved in the burn, plus the crew operating the unmanned aerial system.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “National Park Service plans to use a drone to ignite a prescribed fire”

  1. Doing a 300 acre burn tomorrow… Sorry but your flying robot can’t pack 10k of spheres at a time… Willing to go head to head with technology


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