Battelle funding will ignite conversation on usefulness of drones in wildfires

Posted: August 26, 2022
A burning forest
Drone image of a prescribed burn project.

Autonomous vehicles can revolutionize the practice of prescribed burning for management of our forest resources. However, both autonomous vehicles and prescribed burn projects have struggled to spark public acceptance, largely due to a lack of trust in each one of these domains. A new project by researchers at The Ohio State University aims to change that.

Led by Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Associate Professor Mrinal Kumar, the project is one of just three selected in 2022 to receive a Battelle Engineering, Technology and Human Affairs (BETHA) Endowment. BETHA grants support projects that examine the complex relationship between science and technology on society and cultural issues.

Prescribed burns—also known as controlled burns—are the precise application of fire to accomplish specific land management objectives, including wildfire prevention and mitigation. According to Kumar, they offer ideal testing grounds for autonomous flight vehicles to prove their decision-making ability in an unstructured and hazardous environment. The grant will support an unlikely alliance between two disparate fields.

“This project concerns two areas that have struggled to garner public trust and are sometimes even perceived as a threat to public safety,” he said. “We build on the premise that working together, they offer a wealth of technological advancement and public engagement opportunities.”

Image of Mrinal Kumar
Mrinal Kumar

Kumar’s work will impact the management of and conversation surrounding the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which is the zone of transition between wilderness and urban land. While many associate wildfires with the western part of the country, Kumar’s focus is on the eastern U.S., where forecasts predict a dramatic increase in the probability of catastrophic fire due to climate change, combined with rapidly increasing WUI. His team recently acquired a $1.4 million NSF grant to integrate autonomous unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with prescribed burns to understand how topographic, atmospheric and fuel factors influence fire intensity and rate of spread.

Public engagement is necessary to stay ahead of the problem, he said, and his BETHA award will support that essential component.

The project will build partnerships for public outreach and education through a collaborative effort between Ohio State’s College of Engineering and School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR), along with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Metro Early College High School and WOSU. BETHA funding will support production of a student-driven podcast series that will bring to light some of the most pressing, yet uncommon topics related to UAS and prescribed burns into mainstream public conversation. Additionally, Kumar and co-PI Roger Williams, an associate professor in SENR, will create new cross-disciplinary course content to support professionals and graduate students.

“This grant will help initiate the first public awareness and engagement campaign on this topic, led by students on what lies ahead and how UAS technology may help avert the worst outcomes,” said Kumar. “Our objectives straddle the interface of technology and public service for an imminent social, environmental and ecological concern.”

Visit research.osu.edu to view the full list of BETHA award recipients and their proposals.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu

Categories: ResearchAwards