US Geological Survey using drones to study prescribed burns

By Patrick C. Miller | June 07, 2017

U.S. Geological Survey scientists and its partners are using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to gather data on the prescribed burns used to protect lives and property during wildfires.

The program combines expertise from multiple USGS partners with the goal of reducing the harmful effects of smoke impacts during planned burns. UAS are used to collect data on fire intensity and emissions.

A series of burn events at the Prescribed Fire Science Consortium at Tall Timbers Research Station occurred between April 17 and 23. The objective was to test new sensors on UAS to document the variability in the rate of radiant heat output from fire while connecting the data to fine-scale fire effects.

“We aim to use drones to better understand the relationship between fire intensity and what type of particulates are released from fires of greater or lesser intensity,” said Todd Hoefen, USGS lead scientist. “This can tell us what a fire leaves behind and how that could affect people and the environment.”

Prescribed burns are used to offset the increased risk to property and health during uncontrolled wildfires. The planned fires reduce the woody fuel source, limiting the spread and intensity of wildfires.

UAS were deployed over a study area to examine how fire intensity and rate of spread respond to different fuel types and different levels of fuel accumulation. They also studied how these variables dictate the type and amount of emissions.

The UAS measurements help scientists and managers understand what sorts of elemental and mineral toxics might be present in wildfire emissions, and how their abundance is influenced by combustion temperature and efficiency.

Thermal imaging sensors carried by the UAS enable scientists to view photographs of temperature. Each pixel provides essentially the same data as an instrument placed inside or near the fire. In addition, this imagery can be geo-located to allow researchers to determine how fast flames spread through the landscape.

“The use of a small UAS platform remains novel and promises to significantly and effectively supplant ground- and airplane-based measurements while simultaneously reducing costs and risk to people,” Hoefen said.