GSU professor developing drones to help fight wildfires

The drones in the sky are collecting real-time information that can also help firefighters on the ground contain wildfires.

Wildfires are destructive and can be deadly. Nearly 56,000 wildfires burned more than 8 million acres in the United States last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

California suffered its most deadly wildfire on record. The Camp Fire killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes.

“It’s devastating to lose everything. You just can’t prepare for something like this,” said California homeowner Terri Kutras in August 2018.

Georgia State University Associate Professor Xiaolin Hu, Ph.D. and his colleagues received a $1.2 million federal grant to use drones to fight wildfires. The drones fly about 50 to 100 meters above ground. They are equipped with GPS, a fire sensing camera and sensors to collect two types of information.  

“The fire data, like the location of the fire, and location of the fire front. The second type of data is called wind data, including wind speed and direction,” said Hu.

Using information collected by the drones, a computer simulation model helps predict how the fire will spread.

“They can see in real-time the kind of location of the fire, the fire front and they can also see how the fire is going to spread in the near term maybe 30 minutes ahead,” said Hu. 

Firefighters would receive that information on hand-held devices to help decide where to move firefighting resources. They would also use it to warn people in the fire’s path to evacuate.

“For example, if the fire is spreading in your direction, it’s going to reach you in certain minutes,” said Hu.

Wildfires are an issue in Georgia. A wildfire scorched more than 28,000 acres in the Cohutta Wilderness Area in Fannin County in 2016. Wildfires frequently occur in the Okefenokee Swamp Area in South Georgia.

The Georgia Forestry Commission detects fires and helps fight them. It currently has one drone but is developing a strategy on how to use them to fight wildfires. The agency uses airplanes and helicopters. It is very interested in GSU’s research.  

“I think it’s a great idea if the technology proves itself viable. I think it’s the next step for wildland firefighting,” said Clay Chatham who heads the Georgia Forestry Commission’s aviation program.  

Chatham said there are concerns about drones crashing into other aircraft. Another potential issue is the drone’s battery. 

“Battery life, it tends to be very short in our experience. At this point, probably 20 minutes, maybe 30,” said Chatham.

Hu told us this is a four-year project. He said it may take another two or three years after that before the drones are ready to be used in real fires.

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