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Fire-Spitting Drones Could Help Control Wildfires, Scientists Say

Aug 05, 2016 07:36 AM EDT
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A fireball-shooting drone could help suppress catastrophic wildfires and restore grasslands.

Dirac Twidwell, a range ecologist at the University of Nebraska, developed fireball igniters called "dragon eggs" about the size of ping-pong balls, which are pitched out of an unmanned aerial vehicle or miniature drone. The system is said to create more controlled fire burns that will maintain fire-dependent grasslands and at the same time, suppress destructive wildfires.

"We have always been told that high intensity fires during drought are bad. That's the problem: we have been studying fire when we were told it is OK to ignite and control fires on landscapes," Twidwell said in a report published on Lab Manager.

Twidwell argues that fires are the "stabilizing force" on the grasslands of the Great Plains. According to Twidwell, fires set by lightning used to burn naturally at regular intervals across the Great Plains. However, as the Plains was converted for crops and grazing, the regular burning became a threat and was extinguished. For the past five decades, the rich native grassland that had once spread over the Great Plains had been disappearing - replaced by trees and woody shrubs.

Controlled fires were then used to encourage the native grass and to drive out shrubs throughout the Great Plains. But they are falling short of stopping the trees and shrubs from sprouting.

This is because man-made controlled fires are often ignited at low intensity, as they are prone to errors and are difficult to control, which could create firestorms National Geographic reports.

For this purpose, Twidwell and his co-author Craig Allen, a researcher from the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado, developed the mini drone known as hexacopter with the help of the Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Lab. The hexacopter and the dragon eggs will help manage controlled burns in the forests while keeping small fires from becoming mega fires in the process. The drone could also help firefighters monitor fires and prevent wildfires from spreading, the researchers said.

"In grassland ecosystems we are really data-poor in terms of fire behavior. We need finer scale spatial data and a lot of it to understand the effects of fire on ecosystems and we just haven't had the technology to capture it," Twidwell said in a statement.

"Understanding the spatial context and intensity of fires matters whether your goal is to protect a house or restore a grassland ecosystem."

The details of the research were published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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