UAS Prescribed Fire Ignition


Prescribed fires are increasingly being used to combat wildfires and to improve the health of ecosystems by combating invasive species. Yet, the tools available for fire ignition (e.g., hand-tools, chainsaws, drip torches, and flare launchers), are antiquated, placing ground crews at great risk. The use of helicopter-based ignition, a high-risk activity, has helped in scale but the expense makes it inaccessible to most users. We have developed an Unmanned Aerial System for Firefighting (UAS-FF) to enhance fire ignition capabilities, while significantly reducing the risk to the firefighters. The UAS-FF precisely drops delayed ignition spheres and can be used to ignite fire lines in areas that are otherwise too difficult or dangerous to access with traditional methods. We have worked the FAA and fire agencies and are currently in the process of performing the first set of field experiments where the UAS-FF ignites fires as part of larger prescribed burns.


Goals and Objectives

The development of the software and hardware for the UAS-FF requires not only meeting the payload and other constraints of the UAS, but also the development of the technical capabilities to meet the needs of the users in the fire-ignition domain. The prototype show in the figure uses commercial, chemically activated delayed ignition spheres that are already used to ignite fires, yet are safe enough to transport and use near fires. Depending on the configuration of the vehicle, it can carry up to 50 of these 1.25” spheres that can be dropped over 0.5km from the operator. We designed a “dropping” mechanism, electronics, and software to precisely and safely puncture and inject the spheres to start prescribed fires. In addition, we developed software that allows the operator to monitor, manage, and control the UAS-FF from a safe distance. This enables automated interior ignitions, the most dangerous part of prescribed burns, in small to medium sized landscapes and allows complex burn patterns that cannot be safely ignited by hand. A key design challenge was developing the mechanical, electronics, and software systems to support such requirements while remaining within the capabilities of a platform that could be transported and operated by a firefighter in the harsh fire environment.


Nimbus Lab Members:

  • Carrick Detweiler (Computer Science and Engineering)
  • Sebastian Elbaum (Computer Science and Engineering)
  • Evan Beachly (Computer Science and Engineering)
  • James Higgins (Mechanical and Materials Engineering)
  • Christian Laney (Computer Science and Engineering)
  • Becca Horzewski (Computer Science and Engineering)


  • Dirac Twidwell (Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, UNL)
  • Craig Allen (U.S. Geological Survey – Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, Lincoln)