A University of Nebraska–Lincoln startup company is using drones to fight fire with fire and keep forest fires in check. Carrick Detweiler is the head of the Drone Amplified, an associate professor of computer science and engineering. The company designed drones that carry ping-pong ball-sized chemical spheres. The drones drop the chemical spheres to intentionally sparkle small fires that burn vegetation and starve incoming wildfires of potential fuel.

“Our product fills a niche in the market between a helicopter, which is expensive, and hand lighting, where people have to walk or take a four-wheeler,” said Jim Higgins, chief engineer, and Nebraska alumnus. “It allows crews to ignite large, complex burns without the danger factor.” Furthermore, using a software program that automates drone tasks, makes the drones easier to control. The app also allows users to create geofences, virtual boundaries that keep the drone within select areas. “We get a lot of great responses from customers about these small features, which really makes the system work better for them,” said UNL graduate Evan Beachly, chief app developer. “Our software adds autonomy and mission planning, allowing users to set it all up and press ‘go.’

Forest fires and drones
These drones control forest fires by burning the immediate vegetation to curb the spread.

Firefighting drones are the future

Few operations are generally considered off-limits due to low visibility. Thus, to aid visibility the system includes a thermal camera. This is a new option introduced for firefighting crews: nighttime operations. “It’s normally too dangerous to fly at night over a fire, but with this drone, there’s no possible risk to human life,” Detweiler said. “It provides situational awareness at night to safely fly and ignite burns, which really gives ground crews an advantage during the daytime.”

Drone Amplified is seeing a lot of success due to the local investments by various organizations as well as grant awards. “Nebraska has a very supportive startup community, with a lot of people who want to see success locally,” Detweiler said. “This investment gives us the ability to be a little more strategic and think about where we should be spending time, especially because we work with federal customers in a highly regulated area.”

Even though Drone Amplified’s product represents a distinctly different way to fight fires, the team foresees drones becoming a standard tool, as normal as picking up a firehose or calling in a bulldozer. It’s a vision they’re working to fulfill.

“I think we’re right at the leading edge of this wave of using unmanned systems in firefighting,” Detweiler said. “We want to save the lives of people doing very dangerous jobs.”