Restoring prairie and fighting wildfire with (drone launched) fire(balls)
Aug01

Restoring prairie and fighting wildfire with (drone launched) fire(balls)

To restore the grasslands of the Great Plains, a Nebraska ecologist says, bring back high intensity fires Ecologist Dirac Twidwell wants to change the way we think about prescribed burns. The University of Nebraska professor says he can harness extreme fire to restore grasslands on the Great Plains—and, with the help of the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Lab, he has created a small drone that launches ping-pong balls-sized “dragon eggs” of fire to help him do it safely and cheaply. The two-pound hexacopter could be used to aid in wildfire suppression as well as to ignite prescribed burns for management of wildlands and rangeland, he says, taking on dangerous jobs currently carried out by helicopter pilots and ground crews. In an article published today (1 August 2016) in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Twidwell and colleagues review the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in fire management. Twidwell will speak more broadly about innovations in fire management and his experiments across the Great Plains with high intensity fires during severe drought on Friday, 12 August 2016 at the 101st Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Nobody is really studying high intensity fire, because everyone would think you are crazy. We have always been told that high intensity fires during drought are bad. That’s the problem: we have been studying fire when we were told it is OK to ignite and control fires on landscapes. To me, it’s a job for scientists to do. If we are going to understand the role of fire in nature, we need to study a bigger range of intensities, and we need new approaches to do it,” said Twidwell. Fire shaped the prairie ecosystem of the Great Plains. Historically, fires naturally ignited by lightning swept regularly through the grasslands, killing off the seedlings of trees and shrubs and promoting the dominance of fast-germinating native grasses, which are adapted to frequent fire. Fire releases nutrients that fuel more vibrant regrowth, a pattern recognized by native peoples who set grass fires to improve browse for buffalo. Successful fire suppression has changed that scenario, allowing woody shrubs like juniper to gain a stubborn foothold. Like grasslands and savannas around the world, the Great Plains’ grass sea is on a path to becoming a canopy of shrubs. The shrub infiltration is a tricky problem for ranchers working to maintain quality grazing lands for their livestock and wildlife managers tasked with maintaining native habitat and ecosystem services. Both groups employ fire as a tool, sometimes working together to set the prairie ablaze under controlled conditions and regenerate the grasses. As...

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the drones are coming
May21

the drones are coming

Unmanned vehicles bring in the data By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer   Earlier this month, a couple of environmental scientists from NOAA and WWF turned up at a symposium on drones in company with journalists, law & order types, engineers, gearheads and think tank fellows. The scientists were on the pro-drone docket. Drones can look for oil spills and tangles of derelict fishing nets, said Robbie Hood, Director of Unmanned Aircraft Systems at NOAA, speaking to an overflowing room at the New America Foundation (plus the live stream and viewers on C-Span). They can fly into dangerous weather conditions and remote locations. We’re not going to fly a lot of manned aircraft up there in the arctic because it’s so dangerous, she said, but maybe NOAA will send the drone fleet. Carter Roberts, President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund wanted to track animals with drones, and survey the depredations of man. He also wanted to track the people tracking animals – nefarious people, from his point of view. Some of the most wonderful parks in the world have been enshrined along borders, he said, because parks are nice buffer zones – they are mechanisms for neighboring countries to resolve disputes. This, he implied, is a benefit to people who want to skirt the law. Roberts wants to use drones to track down poachers and cross-border crime syndicates, “shadowy networks that operate across borders” and use the proceeds from illegal wildlife trade to buy guns and fund conflict. Drones in their many forms have potential to deliver valuable surveillance data for ecology – and for other applications you can imagine. An octocopter hovers over a wheat field on the cover of the April issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, illustrating Karen Anderson’s and Kevin Gaston’s view that “Lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles will revolutionize spatial ecology”. They outline the existing options, from modified MQ-9 Predator-B vehicles (expensive!) to DIY kit deals you can fly from your smartphone (US$400). Our overseas activities and the oncoming swarm of domestic unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have stirred up necessary debates over what technology we will chose to allow. Established interests care a lot about the labels we use. Sometime earlier in the morning session, another panelist had expressed displeasure with the label ‘drone.’ Michael Toscano, President and CEO of Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, aggressively asserted that unmanned aircraft are not drones because a person, a human being, pilots the vehicles from a remote location. The aircraft aren’t robots (yet). Unstated, but alluded to by others, was the complaint that ‘drone’ evokes an unfair primal reaction keyed to the image...

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