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Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute begins developing drones to fight wildfires

By Patrick Damp

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    PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — After the skies were hazy last summer in Pittsburgh and other cities across the country, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute began developing drones to combat wildfires.

Andrew Jong, a recent graduate with a master’s degree in robotics, is now pursuing his Ph.D and said that autonomous drones could help firefighters with situational awareness of wildfires, especially being able to see through dense smoke – one of the many challenges they are faced with when these rapid fires happen.

“The situation on the ground can evolve in a matter of minutes,” Jong said. “Better real-time information on wildfires could improve firefighting tactics, contribute to a deeper understanding of fire science, and save the lives of firefighters and others caught in the fire’s path. As of now, the military-grade drones used by those fighting wildfires are high-altitude aircraft that fly far above the trees. They can’t fly low because they can’t see through smoke. We want to fly just above the trees or even below the canopy.”

The drones would also be able to provide “de-smoked” three-dimensional reconstructions of homes, other structures, and the vegetation surrounding them, and that would enable firefighters to understand better what could be saved.

As of now, firefighters have to make those assessments in person and up close, a major risk.

Jong is joined by Sebastian Scherer, Katia Sycara, and Ionnis Gkioulekas in developing these drones, along with support from the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.

They’re also receiving guidance from Josh Wilkins, a second-generation firefighter who retired after 27 years with the California San Bernadino County Fire Department.

“Typically, firefighters beginning an eight-to-12-hour shift are given a piece of paper that tells them where the fire was 12 hours ago,” Wilkins said. “Such dated information doesn’t provide a good understanding of the battleground firefighters face, making it difficult to effectively fight fires. It can also put firefighters’ lives at risk.”

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