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Promotion photo from Drones Amplified
18 Nov 2022

Start-up company uses drones carrying "balls of fire" to initiate prescribed burns

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Small "Dragon Eggs" containing potassium permanganate are dropped from the air to create precise controlled burns

 

A new technology using small chemical for starters the size of ping pong balls has been developed for the purposes of back burning. Back burning, or slash burning, is a form fire prevention using controlled fires to prevent larger forest fire. 

Prescribed burns is a controversial method which uses "fire to fight fire": by by starting small, deliberate fires that can be controlled, firefighters can burn off dry underbrush in the wildlands during the times of year when it is safe to do so. The idea  is to remove fuel from the forests with low intensity fires, without damaging the crowns of the trees, and thereby preventing a larger forest fire during more vulnerable times of the year. 

The technique is not new , and aside from being more and more common as a contemporary fire prevention method, the origins of prescribed fires go all the way back to aboriginal,  pre-Columbian North American cultures. 

The newest tool in prescribed burns comes from a start-up company in the United States, Drone Amplified, which has developed a chemical technology for starting small fires from the air: small balls called "dragon eggs", which can be carried and remotely dropped from a remote controlled firefighting drone. 

According to a CNN-article, the company was started by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering professors in 2017. In 2020, it was awarded a grant totaling $1 million for research and development from the National Science Foundation and Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

According to the founder,  Carrick Detweiler, his idea was to help firefighters avoid the efforts of needing to  hike or ride an all-terrain vehicle through dense forest or mountainous terrain, carrying a drip torch to start small fires in specific, remote locations, or using full size, expensive helicopters "with a whole crew on board, flying really low and slow over the fire". 

The idea behind the "dragon eggs", is to use a chemical agent to start the fires remotely. 

A "dragon egg" seen safely igniting on the ground. Screenshot from Drone Amplified YouTube video.
A "dragon egg" seen safely igniting on the ground. Screenshot from Drone Amplified YouTube video. 

The balls of chemical fire starter agent are the size of ping pong balls, and contain potassium permanganate. When mixed with glycol they start a chemical reaction which result in a fire. According to the company, about 400 balls can be carried by a 50 pound (22,7 kg) drone. 

The drones, are controlled by an app and allows the fire-starting balls to be dropped in very specific locations. The balls can be dropped from the air one by one to create a precise pattern. Precision is a critical element when conducting prescribed burns, because it is crucial for preventing fire escapes.

While escapes during prescribed burns are rare — the US Forest Service reports just one escape for every thousand burns — a failed prescribed burn can be devastating. 

Detweiler said his company’s equipment aims to prevent fire escapes through the use of thermal cameras, visual cameras and other technology that lets firefighters see through smoke.

“Our app also allows the firefighter to put in geofences to prevent any ignitions outside of that area,” he added.