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Forest Service loses $80,000 drone at fire

The Forest Service is looking for a lost drone that was being used to ignite a prescribed burn up the Echo Trail.

A statement released Wednesday said, “This past week, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) experienced an unplanned landing in a remote area of the Superior National Forest while assisting with a prescribe burn, and recovery efforts are underway. The incident is under investigation.”

Drone Amplified, a Nebraska-based startup, supplies the units to the Forest Service. A drone from the company costs about $80,000.

Superior National Forest Supervisor Tom Hall confirmed the incident Wednesday.

Hall said the unit has a five foot diameter.

“It’s not like a predator and it’s not one of the baby ones, it’s somewhere inbetween” said Hall.

Nick Petrack, West Zone Fire Management Officer, said the drone had an unplanned landing on the forest.

“It’s in recovery mode at this time,” said Petrack. “We haven’t found it yet.”

Hall said this was the first time the drone had been used in the Superior National Forest.

“Overall the burn was planned to use UAS and operations had occured, this was an unexpected activity,” said Hall.

Petrack said federal agencies have used drones for several years and speculated it could have been caused by a GPS malfunction.

“One day earlier we used it successfully,” said Petrack.

The UAS is used with a camera that can deterct infra-red as well as photographs.

“The advantages of UAS are obviously the safety aspect, you can fly at low levels through smoke if you wanted to. It’s utilized as a tool for places we wouldn’t put our firefighters,” said Hall.

The ignition capabilities are one of the main uses.

Petrack said the drone can hold 300 ping pong balls.

According to a story in the Alexandria Town Talk, the drone has a machine attached to the bottom filled with plastic spheres about the size of ping pong balls which are sometimes called “Dragon Eggs.” Each of the balls contain a dry chemical, potassium permanganate, inside that is injected with glycol, which is basically antifreeze. When the two combine, it causes a delayed, internal combustion, so that after the sphere falls and hits the ground, it will start a fire. Using a remote, UAS pilots can tell the drone when to start dropping the spheres and when to stop.

“It causes a little fire that can help with ignition,” said Petrack.

He said a geo-fence is used to ignite the balls and release them.

“It’s the same concept of using a helicopter but you’re taking the human element out of it,” said Petrack.

Petrack said the UAS was dispensing ping pong balls at the time it was lost but it had stopped injecting the glycol.

Hall said it was a possibility the drone could have started on fire when it landed.

“It did not which is a very fortunate thing,” said Hall.

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