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Smoke-sniffing drones may be future of California wildland firefighting

Drones may sniff out new California wildfires
Drones may sniff out new California wildfires 01:58

DAVIS — When a wildfire breaks out, early detection is key in stopping it from spreading.

Cal Fire's goal is to get on the scene of these fires quickly and contain 95 percent of all fires to just 10 acres or less. Now, drones may be the latest technology that helps detect wildland blazes as soon as they break out.

"We're going to have a swarm of them," said Professor Zhaodan Kong of the UC Davis mechanical and aerospace engineering department.

A team of mechanical aerospace engineers at UC Davis is building these drones.

"The official name is an octocopter," said UC Davis Ph.D. student Prabhesh Ragbir.

Octocopters are equipped with detectors that can sniff out smoke.

"We have sensors for particulate matter, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, VOCs," Ragbir said.

They say it works much like a search dog's nose.

"You track the scents, and then you track the scents, and you figure out the location of the wildfire," Kong said.

The onboard air samplers are so sensitive that they can detect smoke before it becomes visible to cameras or the human eye.

"Even down to the nanomoles, very small amounts," Ragbir said.

The drone can then follow the trail to pinpoint the precise origin of the fire and quickly alert firefighters.

"Our hope is, basically, we can catch or detect the wildfire as early as possible, and that means that the damage caused by fire will be minimized," Kong said.

With the potential to protect millions of dollars worth of property, the drones are actually pretty economical.

"The whole thing is about $2,000," Kong said.

The engineers have been working with Cal Fire to experiment with the drones on several prescribed burns, and so far, they've seen success.

"You need to show them that it works and that you can gradually incorporate this into their workflow," Kong said.

The drones have limited flight time, so they will only be launched during times of high fire danger — like the red flag conditions that we saw Wednesday in parts of the north state.

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