Enabling Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Fire Ignitions in Complex Firefighting Contexts

This project is funded in part by the National Science Foundation through grant #NSF-NRI: 1638099 and Nebraska Games and Parks.

Video Highlights


Project Description

Prescribed fire is critical for reducing catastrophic wildfires and sustaining healthy ecosystems. Yet the technology to support fire ignition and monitoring remains stagnant, risky, and expensive. This project aims to develop the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) technology that can transform prescribed fire ignition and monitoring by: 1) enabling the communication between UASs and humans by sharing the vehicle intention through maneuvers, 2) improving UAS operation by taking into account operator availability, 3) leveraging the operator’s knowledge to improve control of multiple vehicles, 4) fixing failures by enabling the operator and the system to work together, and 5) assessing the technological capabilities and associated users’ acceptance of this technology. This effort is significant because it addresses unique co-robotic challenges in the UAS domain and is transformative in its potential to change how a range of organizations maintain their ecosystems and manage wildfires.

The project aims at developing and assessing techniques, tools, and systems to dramatically improve the potential for UASs to safely ignite and monitor fire. To achieve that goal, it conducts multidisciplinary work on: 1) motion-based languages that communicate UAS intention and knowledge to operators and bystanders, 2) co-regulation methodologies that incorporate operator availability and attention into traditional control and planning loops, 3) integrative functions that map the environmental knowledge and domain expertise of an operator into a fleet of vehicles to support different levels of autonomy, 4) co-debugging techniques from program analysis that collaborate with the operator to help diagnose and overcome failures caused by misconfigurations, and 5) cross-cutting studies to gain a better understanding of the attitudes of stakeholders towards UASs, and the features that are likely to promote stakeholder trust and acceptance.


  • Faculty
    • Sebastian Elbaum (PI) (Computer Science and Engineering)
    • Craig Allen  (School of Natural Resources)
    • Justin Bradley (Computer Science and Engineering)
    • Carrick Detweiler (Computer Science and Engineering)
    • Brittany Duncan (Computer Science and Engineering)
    • Lisa Pytlik Zillig (University of Nebraska Public Policy Center)
    • Dirac Twidwell  (Agronomy and Horticulture)
  • Students
    • Urja Acharya (Computer Science and Engineering)
    • Evan Beachly (Computer Science and Engineering)
    • Balaji Balasubramaniam (Computer Science and Engineering)
    • Seth Doebbeling (Mechanical Engineering)
    • Ashraful Islam (Mechanical Engineering)
    • Jake Kawamoto (University of Nebraska Public Policy Center)
    • Janell Walther (University of Nebraska Public Policy Center)
    • Alisha Bevins (Computer Science and Engineering – ugrad)
    • Austin Schmidt (Computer Science and Engineering – ugrad)
  • Former Student Participants
    • James Higgins (Mechanical and Materials Engineering)
    • Christian Laney (Computer Science and Engineering -ugrad)
    • Becca Horzewski (Computer Science and Engineering – ugrad)

Current Activities

  • Field Tests April (2017-2018)
  • Attitudes towards drone-ignition (2017-2018)
  • Fire Modeling (2016-2017)
  • Coregulation and control of computational and physical effectors (2016-2017)
  • Trajectory planning and optimization (2016-2017)
  • Attitudes towards drones (2016-2017)
  • Field tests setup and COAs for Loess Canyons, Nature Conservancy, and Indian Cave (2016-2017)
  • Fire Conference December (2016)
  • UASs motions as gestures (2016-2017)
  • Prototype Development (2016-2017)
  • Impact Analysis for Robotic systems (2016-2017)
  • Co-diagnosis of failures (2016)


  • J.-P. Ore, C. Detweiler, and S. Elbaum. Dimensional Inconsistencies in Code and ROS Messages: a Study of 5.9M Lines of Code. In Proceedings of IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robotics and Systems (IROS), Vancouver, Canada, 2017.
  • A. Shankar, S. Doebbeling, and J. Bradley, “Toward a Cyber-Physical Quadrotor: Characterizing Trajectory Following Performance,” in International Conference on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Miami, FL, June 2017.
  • N. Sharma, S. Elbaum, and C. Detweiler. Rate Impact Analysis in Robotic Systems. In Proceedings of IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), Singapore, 2017.
  • J.-P. Ore, C. Detweiler, and S. Elbaum. Lightweight Detection of Physical Unit Inconsistencies without Program Annotations. In Proceedings of the 2017 International Symposium on Software Testing and Analysis (ISSTA), Santa Barbara, CA, 2017.
  • U. Acharya, A. Bevins, and B. Duncan, Investigation of human-robot comfort with a small unmanned aerial vehicle compared to a ground robot,² in IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2017.
  • D. Twidwell, C. Allen, C. Detweiler, J. Higgins, C. Laney, and S. Elbaum. Smokey Comes of Age: Unmanned Aerial Systems for Fire Management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 14(6): 333-339, 2016.
  • E. Beachly, J. Higgins, C. Laney, S. Elbaum, C. Detweiler, C. Allen, and D. Twidwell. A micro-UAS to Start Prescribed Fires. In Proceedings of International Symposium on Experimental Robotics (ISER), Tokyo, Japan, 2016.
  • A. Taylor, S. Elbaum, and C. Detweiler. Co-Diagnosing Configuration Failures in Co-Robotic Systems. In Proceedings of IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robotics and Systems (IROS), Daejeon, Korea, 2016.