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Ecological Society of America

Fighting Wildfire With Fire — With Drones

Fireballs dropped from drones could give the Forest Service more control over wildfires, with less risk to firefighters.

By Evan Thomas | August 3, 2016

The U.S. Forest Service is exploring a new tool that could help wildland firefighters do their jobs: a drone that drops tiny firebombs.

Scientists at the University of Nebraska developed the drones to start controlled burns.

SEE MORE: If It Feels Like Wildfires Are Getting Bigger, It's Because They Are

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The remote drones carry a hopper of what are essentially incendiary paintballs.

"Each ball is rotated and injected with alcohol to start a chemical reaction before being dropped to the ground. Seconds later, the ball ignites," a video from the University of Nebraska explains. 

The mechanical precision could be useful for firefighters setting prescribed burns in the wild.

These intentional fires consume fuel that might otherwise feed uncontrolled fires. They also help fight invasive plant species and return useful nutrients to the soil. Right now, they're set by hand or from helicopters.

The U.S. Geological Survey thinks using drones to do it could be safer — air accidents have accounted for about a quarter of firefighter deaths in the U.S. since 2000.

But there's still a lot of red tape in the way before drones can start distributing fire themselves. The U.S. Forest Service still treats them as full-size aircraft, with all the same training and maintenance requirements. And the FAA has strict rules against drones carrying "hazardous materials." Fireballs would probably qualify.

This video includes images from Getty Images and clips from Harvest Public Media, the University of NebraskaYouTube / Dirac Twidwell, the U.S. Forest ServiceCalifornia Office of Emergency Services / CC BY 3.0Lockheed MartinNASA and Marcus R. / CC BY 3.0. Music provided courtesy of APM Music.

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