Fighting fire with fire (and drones)

Started by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors, a company called Drone Amplified created drones that firefighters can operate to set prescribed burns. Their technology is used by firefighters across the country, taking humans out of harm's way and providing a more efficient method of burning.

Drone Amplified

Prescribed burns predate European settlers in North America. Responders light them to prevent wildfires from getting out of control. In the past they did this using potentially dangerous techniques — either on the ground manually or from helicopters. Today, there’s a safer approach: Drones. 

Started by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors, a company called Drone Amplified created drones that firefighters can operate to set prescribed burns. Their technology is used by firefighters across the country, taking humans out of harm’s way and providing a more efficient method of burning. 

“This isn’t just a toy or something that somebody is enjoying playing with,” co-founder and CEO Carrick Detweiler said. “It’s really a tool that is changing how firefighters work, improving their capabilities and saving lives.”

Detweiler said the system has expanded to Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Canada.

Prescribed burns reduce the risk a fire will get out of control, Detweiler said. They burn the brush on the bottom of the floor, so the fire lacks fuel and can’t get more severe once it reaches that area. To do so, they often used aerial ignition.

“Prescribed fires are used to manage vegetation and reintroduce fire into the ecosystem, which reduces the severity of catastrophic fires. Prescribed burns are ignited to reduce hazardous fuel loads near developed areas, manage landscapes and restore natural woodlands,” according to the U.S. Forest Service website.

“You see on the news, a lot of the light retardant drops and airplanes dropping water and stuff. But it turns out a lot of the time they’re actually using fire to fight fire,” Detweiler said. 

Detweiler learned this while working as a Computer Science and Engineering Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As Detweiler was searching for uses for drones, a UNL faculty member and wildfire ecologist explained the challenges of wildland firefighting. From there, he and another college professor, Sebastian Elbaum, saw a niche for them and their drones.

Prior to Drone Amplified’s IGNIS system, firefighters used two techniques, according to Detweiler: a person would hold a drip torch and walk or ride an ATV along the area, or they would pilot a helicopter to drop ignition spheres. The method was risky. Around a quarter of wildland firefighting fatalities were related to aviation. 

Detweiler and Elbaum decided they could put their drone expertise to work. After a couple years developing prototypes out of UNL, they commercialized Drone Amplified around 2017. 

Now, firefighters can light controlled burns without stepping into harm’s way.  

Drone Amplified’s IGNIS system dispenses ignition spheres — ping-pong ball sized containers that hold the chemical potassium permanganate. Users then inject these with a second chemical, glycol, which causes the spheres to start a small fire around 30 to 60 seconds after release. A drone can carry 400 per flight, and drop from two to eight balls per acre. 

“You can burn a pretty large area even in a single flight,” Detweiler said. 

Drone Amplified attaches the system to drones like the Freefly Alta X, and then modifies them to better accommodate firefighters. The drones have visual thermal cameras for firefighters to locate fires. Users can control it all using the IGNIS app.

An image from the drone’s thermal camera.

While developing the drone, the company worked closely with the United States Department of Interior’s Forest Services. Where most drone software has broader uses, Detweiler said they worked with the department to develop specific capabilities and tools for firefighters in the wild. 

“The thing that makes us proud is that when we talk to firefighters, they’re like ‘this is a game changer,’” Detweiler said. “This is changing the way [firefighters] operate.”

Consider Raven Environmental Services, an environmental consulting and natural resource management company based out of Texas.

Brett Lawrence, a Raven employee who spearheaded their use of drones for burning, said they’ve been doing prescribed burns since the company was founded in 1996. The company jumped on board with Drone Amplified in 2018, and use it as frequently as they can. 

“It’s definitely a huge impact here,” Lawrence said. “I’m encouraged by what I see. I think more and more people are embracing it and recognizing its value.”

Lawrence said drones have helped Raven in two major ways: efficiency and safety. With the IGNIS software, they’re able to use data to analyze how many acres need to be burned for effectiveness. The drones are also quicker, letting them burn more ground in a day. They can get wildfire smoke dissipated more efficiently, which can be impactful in urbanized areas that exist in Texas. The drone also keeps people safe, as they aren’t putting themselves in grueling conditions in front of blazing fires.

“Folks would traditionally be dragging ignition torches through pretty unforgiving terrains,” Lawrence said. “Now, we’re keeping them out of those hazardous environments.”

Lawrence said his teammates are thrilled to not have to do all the groundwork. Their clients mostly are too, and although some are a little hesitant about the system, most are very receptive to the new technology, according to Lawrence. 

“For obvious reasons, the drone is conspicuous,” Lawrence said. “It’s large, it’s kind of got the cool factor going on and people’s responses are overwhelmingly positive.”

Although Raven still does prescribed burns without the IGNIS drones, they use the robots more often than not. Of about 30 burns a year, they’ll use the drones in 20, Lawrence said. 

Detweiler sees Drone Amplified continuing to change how drones can be used, potentially expanding even further past mitigating wildfires. Starting this fall, he’ll be going on leave at UNL to focus on the company, which just opened an office outside of Philadelphia. 

“It’s been a really exciting past five years or so,” Detweiler said. “I think we’re going to continue to have exciting years to come here as we continue to advance technologies to make this work.”


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