Firefighting Drone Used in Recent Wildfire

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Nebraska Startup Company Developed Drone

LINCOLN, Neb. — Fighting fire with fire-technology developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s drone lab recently helped crews fight a major wildfire. In mid-July, Jim Higgins, of Drone Amplified, took some of their IGNIS fire management drones to test at Oregon’s Klondike Fire.

“To see them actually flying it in smoky conditions with huge flames, that was really exciting,” Higgins said. The drone helped ignite fires in burn areas to create fire lines in hard-to-reach terrain. It was also used to monitor the spread of the fire and mapped out hot spots using an infrared camera.

Amazingly, the idea for this technology came out of a discussion over lunch in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Talking with some various people at the university and really coming up with an idea that we really thought would not work initially,” said Carrick Detweiler, a UN-L computer science and mechanical engineering professor.

Yet, five years later, after developing prototypes at UN-L’s Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems Lab, then conducting field tests to automatically drop balls of fire-starting chemicals in prescribed burns, Detweiler and several other current and former students and staff from the lab established a startup company to begin producing the drone system and selling it commercially.

“There’s nothing better than to hear from some of the people using it that this is really a gamechanger and this is going to save lives and save property,” Detweiler said. Some of those comments came from the people who originally doubted the need for a fire-starting drone. “Originally people were very resistant to it. People were hesitant,” Higgins said. That changed after seeing IGNIS in action in Oregon.

“By the end of that deployment, people loved it. They were saying, ‘We can’t get enough of this. This is definitely going to change the way we fight fires,'” Higgins said.

So far, they have sold a dozen systems, which cost around $15,000 each. That’s much cheaper than the cost of a helicopter, which runs about $5,000 to $10,000 a day, and can be safer, according to Evan Beachley, of Drone Amplified.

“I think there have been several lives that have been lost to accidents in fires due to ground crew ignitions, but there have also been accidents due to helicopters crashing,” Beachley said. They say safety is the biggest aspect to this technology. “To keep people on the ground out of danger but still allow the tools to go in there and fight the fires,” Higgins said.

The University of Nebraska holds the license to the fire-starting drone technology, so the university benefits financially from sales of the drones. Detweiler said the startup company is also looking at producing other drones that can take water or soil samples and conduct crop surveys.

Published by KETV on Dec. 30, 2018. Original article can be found here.