Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Drones Drop Fire Balls To Ignite Extreme Controlled Burns

The Great Plains of the American West are becoming a great sea of shrubs—and wimpy manmade fires are at the heart of the problem. That's according to ecologist Dirac Twidwell, who believes controlled burns simply aren't hot enough to control the woody shrubs that are taking over the prairies.  What's needed are "extreme fires," meaning fires that burn hot and are erratic and nonlinear in their movement, Twidwell wrote in a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. And to help manage these extreme fires, Twidwell and a team of engineers from the University of Nebraska have created drones that can start extreme fires from the sky, a prototype of which we previously covered. In the past, lightening regularly ignited fires in the plains, killing off tree seedlings and shrubs, and promoting the growth of fire-adapted grasses. But decades of fire-control by humans has altered that natural process, allowing woody shrubs to prosper and overtake the grassland. This is a problem for ranchers hoping to maintain quality grazing land for cattle and for wildlife managers seeking to maintain the native ecosystem. The low-intensity controlled burns they've employed have inhibited large-scale wild fires by restricting potential fuel, but in doing so have facilitated the march of the shrubs, which can survive low heat fires...The idea for the fire drones started as a joke between Twidwell and co-author Craig Allen, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. But they quickly realized it had real potential. Twidwell worked with a team of engineers at the University of Nebraska's NIMBUS Lab to develop drones that deploy ping-pong-ball-sized "dragon eggs" loaded with fire-starting chemicals to ignite controlled fires. They're safe and cheap, Twidwell says, taking on a dangerous job normally carried out by range crews and helicopter pilots...more

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