Small Unmanned Aircraft Used for Prescribed Fire at Homestead National Monument of America

An unmanned aircraft hovers above a field while two men in firefighting gear stand nearby.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln launch an unmanned aircraft with a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD) to conduct interior ignitions on a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument of America.

NPS / MIKE JOHNSON

On April 22, 2016, Homestead National Monument of America conducted the first prescribed fire in the National Park Service (NPS) using a small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) for interior ignition. Twenty six acres of restored tallgrass prairie were successfully burned according to management objectives through the collaborative efforts of the Department of Interior National Park Service and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).

The sUAS was from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Laboratory. The UNL system is a greatly scaled down version of a manned helicopter aerial ignition device. A multidisciplinary team of UNL experts in micro-UAS technology, fire ecology, conservation and public policy is developing this unmanned aerial system for supporting prescribed and wildland fire operations.

Jim Traub, NPS Unmanned Aircraft System Specialist, said: "UAS's in firefighting have the potential to reduce direct risk to firefighters doing ignition work while reducing costs and making an aerial resource more widely accessible to wildland firefighting efforts." Traub added, "The National Park Service was pleased to facilitate this unique and innovative opportunity with UNL, for this test of an sUAS in a fire situation."

Homestead National Monument of America, the NPS Midwest Region Fire and Aviation Program, and the NPS National Aviation Offices collaborated with UNL's NIMBUS Laboratory and the Department of Interior Office of Aviation Services (OAS) for this operational test and evaluation of the integration of sUAS into wildland fire operations. The goal with the Homestead prescribed fire was to conduct a live test of the sUAS consistent with the intent of 2015 UAS Technology Overview approved by then NPS Associate Director of Visitor Resource Protection, Cam Sholly; Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary, Kim Thorsen; Office of Aviation Services, Director Mark Bathrick as well as other bureaus co-located at the National Interagency Fire Center.

A man stands in front of a group of men and women in firefighting gear.
Scott Beacham from the National Park Service Midwest Regional Office briefs crews and media prior to the prescribed fire ignitions.

NPS / MIKE JOHNSON

The "perfect" burn day arrived on April 22, 2016. Firefighters assisting with the prescribed fire were from Homestead, the NPS Midwest Regional Office, the NPS Black Hills Wildland Fire Module, Wind Cave National Park, the Bureau of Indian Affairs-Horton Agency, the Beatrice Rural Volunteer Fire Department, and the Fairbury Rural Fire Department. A fire ecologist from the NPS Heartland Inventory and Monitoring Program was also on site providing weather updates throughout the fire event. The firefighters were used to ignite and hold the east and west flanks of the designated burn area, allowing the NIMBUS team time to test their sUAS by completing the interior ignition.

The researchers from the UNL called their work successful. The lead researcher, Sebastian Elbaum, shared; the sUAS "worked great." He further stated, "...things we wanted to verify with the technology, were verified and we came away from the test with a greater understanding of ways the sUAS technology can be improved."

The sUAS was from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Laboratory. The UNL system is a greatly scaled down version of a manned helicopter aerial ignition device. A multidisciplinary team of UNL experts in micro-UAS technology, fire ecology, conservation and public policy is developing this unmanned aerial system for supporting prescribed and wildland fire operations.

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