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article imageFires are needed to restore the Great Plains of the U.S.

By Tim Sandle     Aug 3, 2016 in Environment
To restore the grasslands of the Great Plains, a high intensity fire is required. The best way to achieve this, an ecologist argues, is with the use of drones.
The call for high intensity fire and the use of drone technology (unmanned aerial systems) has come from Dirac Twidwell, who is employed by the University of Nebraska. The Great Plains refers to a broad expanse of flat land (or “plain”), traditionally made up of grassland. The area includes the territory west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains, extending through parts of the U.S. and Canada.
To start the fires and to develop the appropriate types of drones, Professor Twidwell has been working with the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems laboratory. This collaboration has produced a prototype drone capable of launching small balls that contain chemicals capable of combusting on impact and starting a fire. Professor Twidwell dubs these "dragon eggs." The prototype craft is a small, “hexacopter”, which weighs just two pounds.
As to what the device looks like:
The idea of using fire relates to the history of the Great Plains. In the past, fires from sources like lightning often swept through the grasslands. The fires destroyed seedlings of trees and this led to fast-germinating native grasses becoming dominant. Such grasses thrived because fire releases nutrients. However, over the past few years fire suppression has altered the ecology leading to woody shrubs to appear in higher numbers. The net effect is the grassy plains of the past are becoming increasingly dominated by shrubs. This is affecting livestock, which need grass to graze on.
The video below shows the prototype in action:
Although wildlife managers are using fire, in a controlled way, to eliminate the shrubs the ground level produced fires are not sufficiently hot. This is where Professor Twidwell and his drone-launched chemical concoction comes in. Trials have taken place using high-intensity burns in Texas (near the Edwards Plateau), which have been successful.
The craft could have an alternative use.
World Wildlife Fund (@World_Wildlife): "Prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and drones: an innovative boost for species in the great plains."
As well as starting fires it could also play a role in helping to suppress wildfires. This is in the form of tracking and relaying information about the course that fires are taking. As well as offering advantages that come with its small size, including speed and agility, the drones would remove the requirement for human led helicopters to go close to fires, which would reduce the risk to of the loss of human life.
Professor Twidwell’s research and ideas about restoring the plains are published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The paper is titled “Smokey comes of age: unmanned aerial systems for fire management.”
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