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Drones with incendiary "ping pong balls" are helping crews fight fire with fire

A drone using what's called the IGNIS system leaves its flight pad and heads towards a wildfire.
Photo Curator
A Japanese balloon bomb, "Fu-Go" is inflated for laboratory tests. It was recovered at Alturas, California, January 10, 1945. The balloon was a true sphere, 70-100 feet in circumference. It was made of five layers of mulberry paper, and filled with hydrogren. Suspended like a chandelier below the envelope by 19 shroud lines, each 45 feet long, was a device for automatic control of altitude. The bomb load was attached to the “chandelier” with an automatic release mechanism.

During World War Two, the Japanese used floating “balloon bombs” against American forests along the Pacific Coast, intended to start wildfires.

Now a similar concept today is being used to fight wildfires.

The estimated 9,000 balloon bombs the Japanese used during the war were large, incendiary devices that floated with the jet stream. In 1945, one killed six people having a picnic near Bly, Oregon, but most of the devices never worked to the Axis Forces’ hopes. Hundreds of the balloons ended up in 26 states, as well as Canada and Mexico.

Today, like at the Cedar Creek Fire outside Oakridge, drones are being piloted that have small, incendiary spheres that are also intended to set foliage ablaze.

The fire’s Public Information Officer, Bud Sexton, explained to KLCC that the spheres are for controlled burns, that deprive active fires of fuel.

“It’s literally just about the size of a ping pong ball,” said Sexton. “And it has some chemicals in there, potassium permanganate.

"After it drops, it ignites within about 20 seconds. Gives plenty of time for that to reach the ground. Then the chemical reaction, and then just a little fireball in that particular area.”

Sexton says the operations manager and the drone operator essentially stand side-by-side during the process, with the precision being far greater than the balloon bombs used roughly 80 years ago.

The IGNIS system developed by DroneAmplified has a UAS with a payload of chemical spheres, which ignite after they are dropped. Many fire-fighting agencies use these for starting controlled burns, as opposed to sending personnel out at greater risk.

Drones with infrared cameras have also been used to detect wildfires that may elude the naked eye, while others have been used to track fires' growth in areas too treacherous or unstable for people to access.

©2022, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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