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Arizona researchers using drones to detect wildfires

The drones will have thermal cameras mounted on them and could help fire managers plan prescribed burns
NAU Wildfire Drone
Posted at 4:21 PM, Oct 19, 2022

Northern Arizona University researchers are using drones to help detect and better manage wildfires no matter the size.

"Once the monsoon hits the Southwest, we get a lot of lightning strikes," says NAU School of Forestry graduate research assistant Leo O'Neill.

The drones, along with the thermal cameras mounted on them, may help fire managers plan prescribed burns and potentially give crews the upper hand before a large fire erupts.

"Those will produce single tree lightning fires. They're a challenge to find a lot of times, so these drones could definitely help finding and locating these fires."

Peter Fulé, a regents' professor with the NAU School of Forestry, says early detection of wildfires is very useful in cases where fires need to be suppressed.

"People built lookout towers to look for fires to try and detect them as early and as small as possible," Fulé says. "Technology of various kinds, including drones, is helpful and potentially could be more helpful in that process."

Current research is being done on the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. It's also part of a larger national collaboration funded by the National Science Foundation.

The research group looks at thermal imagery of fires frame by frame, classifying whether the image has a fire or not. Their computer uses the images to learn from a large dataset to develop an algorithm that detects if a fire is present or not.

"In the big picture, drones can provide a lot more real-time information about what's going on in the fire environment," Fulé says.

Ongoing research isn't ready for management use, but the hope is to develop products that agencies can use in the future to find fires much faster.

This article was written by Jorge Torres for KXXV.