The U.S. Forest Service is exploring a new tool that could help wildland firefighters do their jobs: a drone that drops tiny firebombs.
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 Nebraska, YouTube / Dirac Twidwell, the U.S. Forest Service, California Office of Emergency Services / CC BY 3.0, Lockheed Martin, NASA and Marcus R. / CC BY 3.0. Music provided courtesy of APM Music.