A fleet of self-flying drones for firefighters
A fleet of self-flying drones is being developed by local researchers that could soon swoop around wildfires and gather invaluable real-time intelligence for fire crews battling out-of-control blazes.
Professors from Olin College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on the self-flying drones with Woburn’s Scientific Systems Company under a NASA contract designed to help firefighters know more about wildfires.
Andrew Bennett, a mechanical engineering professor at Olin College in Needham, told the Herald his students have been testing the drones since early summer, using the soccer and rugby fields at nearby Babson College as a simulated forest. Bennett and his partner, MIT professor Jonathan How, hope to have the drone system ready for demonstrations this spring.
The next test stage, Bennett said, will be using a tractor to drag flaming fire pits through a field to see whether the drones can track the fire.
“I’m a big believer in the expression: Fail early, try often,” said Bennett, whose earlier projects include using drones to collect mucus from a whale’s blowhole.
These self-flying drones will let a firefighter select a point of a fire on a map, then send a drone there to examine the fire and report back with data. The drone will move along the edges of the fire and also have the ability to dispatch other drones to check out other areas or replace the first drone once its batteries run low.
“Our goal was to get the trained pilot out of the equation, so the firefighter can have direct control,” Bennett said. “It’s like the early days of cars when you had to have a trained driver and mechanic, which wasn’t very useful unless you were rich.”
Knowing how a fire burns and where it might move next is the most important part of firefighting, said Chief Fire Warden David Celino of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation.
And knowing that information in real time is exciting, he said.
“No matter how futuristic the technology is, you still go back to the fundamentals of firefighting: Success in trying to get containment or control over a fire is all about gathering the size-up information — the intelligence about what’s going on with the fire,” he said.
Celino said the conversation around drones and firefighting has gone both ways. As powerful as they can be for predicting a fire’s path, drones have also caused serious danger when flown by civilians near fires.
“We have been forced to write a policy that says if we have unauthorized aircraft, including drones, in the airspace we shut our aviation show down until it’s clear,” Celino said.