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CMU pioneers low-flying drones to map wildfires

CMU’s Robotics Institute are developing drones that can navigate through smoke, providing firefighters
May 1, 2024

With North American wildfires on the rise due to climate change, the fight against these destructive blazes is more critical than ever. While drones have been a vital tool in this battle, existing systems have their limitations. However, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are developing a new generation of forest drones to revolutionize wildfire management.

For over a decade, drones have played a significant role in combating wildfires, and their numbers are expected to reach 30,000 by next year, according to the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association. However, the current high-altitude military-grade drones used in firefighting operations have limitations. These drones are unable to fly low through smoke, limiting their effectiveness in providing real-time data to firefighters on the ground.

Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, led by PhD student Andrew Jong, is working to address this issue. They are developing drones capable of flying just above the tree canopy or even below it, navigating through smoke to provide firefighters with accurate maps, escape routes, and information about danger zones.

The project, initially developed for CMU's DARPA Subterranean Challenge, is now focused on developing forest drones capable of creating 3D "digital twin" maps of wildfire-affected areas quickly and efficiently. While there may be initial resistance from some within the firefighting community, retired firefighter Josh Wilkins, who collaborates with the CMU team, is confident that the safety features and invaluable data collected by these drones will win over even the most skeptical firefighters.

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