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 Aerial Robot System Can Save Firefighter Lives, Study Suggests

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Date posted: 12/11/2011

Wildfires kill and, too often, fatalities are caused by a lack of situational awareness, said Kelly Cohen. Timely information can prevent wildfire deaths, especially among first responders, said Cohen, associate professor of aerospace engineering & engineering mechanics at the University of Cincinnati.

Cohen supervises a project known as SIERRA (Surveillance for Intelligent Emergency Response Robotic Aircraft) which integrates small, unmanned aircraft with global positioning systems, environmental data, video and fire-prediction software to give real-time information about where a fire is burning, and where it is moving.

"What we are designing is a complete system," Cohen said. "It is low-cost and low-risk. That is important for this application because, while the technology is ready, firefighters are not quick to adopt new technologies. We can show that this works."

To gain the confidence of working firefighters, the graduate student who serves as SIERRA team leader, Robert Charvat, participated in firefighter training in West Virginia.

The SIERRA team tested the system in Coopers Rock State Forest, West Virginia, with a small, contained fire on Nov. 5, 2011, in collaboration with the West Virginia Division of Forestry. The UC team present at this test included five graduate students and three undergraduates who experienced a valuable day of learning away from the classroom and labs.

"This test was a clear demonstration of the potential for this technology to limit wild land fire damage by saving money, lives and land," Charvat said.

The SIERRA system, Cohen said, is designed to assist firefighters overcome a major handicap during a wildfire -- the inability to see the whole fire. Wildfires not only burn through rugged terrain marked by hills and valleys but, even on relatively level ground, obscure their extent by screens of smoke.

"If I am coordinating response efforts," Cohen said, "I require information to determine what resources I need, where I must deploy those resources, and where I must be ready to move. This system uses the information gathered and allocates resources."

The SIERRA system is built around a small, unmanned aerial vehicle from Marcus UAV Inc. The five-pound vehicle has a 54-inch wingspan and the ability to fly faster than 35 miles per hour to altitudes of 10,000 feet on flights lasting approximately an hour. While in the air, the vehicle can transmit video while it navigates using GPS.

"For our purposes, the vehicle flew no higher than 500 feet," Cohen said. "It was a successful demonstration of tactical unmanned aerial system technology for use in wild land fire events."

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