As wildfires threaten forest areas across the United States, one University of Nebraska-Lincoln startup company is using drones to literally fight fire with fire.
Drone Amplified created a modification for drones so firefighters and forest services can remotely start controlled burns from a safe distance. Controlled burns are used in order to get rid of flammable materials on a forest floor in an organized manner before it turns into a forest fire.
Carrick Detweiler, a Susan J. Rosowski associate professor of computer science and engineering at UNL, co-founded Drone Amplified, a company that is commercializing an aerial ignition system. At its start in 2017, Detweiler said the company was mostly just exploring ideas of how drones could be used in firefighting situations.
According to Chief of Engineering Jim Higgins, the ignition system that Drone Amplified sells, IGNIS, is a modification for drones that allows them to drop “ignition spheres” into areas that are approved for controlled burns by forest services. Higgins also said that the ignition spheres are made of a combustible material called potassium permanganate that ignites on impact.
The startup also provides a training program to help customers learn how to safely operate a drone with the IGNIS system.
Detweiler said the company came into its element in 2017, and now has three full-time employees and three part-time employees, not including himself.
Higgins said he oversees and helps to build each IGNIS system and has helped Drone Amplified produce a more efficient and better operating model. The new model can hold more ignition spheres that can be dropped in quicker succession and can also be operated for longer without maintenance.
“Working on this cutting edge technology is fun,” Higgins said. “But I also see that this tool has the potential to save a lot of lives.”
Higgins and Detweiler said they would like to see the use of drones in controlled burns become the norm for every firefighting and forest service. Detweiler said large, controlled burns now are typically started by a helicopter flying low and slow over a controlled burn area. This method, he said, is dangerous and cost-inefficient.
“We’re addressing this by creating IGNIS … a lot of autonomy and safety features will be able to be remotely operated to start these fires in a safer and cost effective way,” Detweiler said.
Higgins said the creators at Drone Amplified first discovered they had a commercially-viable product when they were approached by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“They had seen some of the papers and videos we had published online and caught wind of what we were doing,” Higgins said. “At that point, [IGNIS] was just a research project in a lab, but we saw that there was a real demand.”
Detweiler said Drone Amplified currently has contracts with the U.S. Department of the Interior, United States Forest Service and forest services in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. After several training sessions, Higgins said support for the work Drone Amplified does is growing amongst the federal government and the everyday people that work for forest services.
“It’s cool to see the progression of this technology and how people are embracing it,” he said.