Oak Ridge National Lab Prepares Drones To Prevent & Fight Wildfires

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When it comes to electric aviation, one of the key benefits is that small drones are available today and they don’t contribute to the problem of climate change. But, can they help us deal with the climate change gas and kerosene-powered aircraft helped create? It turns out that the answer to this is a definite, “Yes!”

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are utilizing sensors, drones, and machine learning to prevent fires while also minimizing their damage to the electric grid as a result of climate change. Engineers are developing remote sensing technologies that can detect electrical arcing and faulty equipment as well as fire spread patterns.

The Department of Energy (DOE) provided financial resources to several wildfire management projects last year, two of which were at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “We chose this research to be accelerated because we recognize how critical and hazardous wildfire has become due to climate change and other factors,” said Stewart Cedres, a senior DOE technical lead and strategist. Wildfire damage to transmission lines can cause brownouts and blackouts several states away, he noted.

The need has never been greater. According to National Interagency Fire Center data, the most catastrophic fires in history have occurred since 2004, concurrent with several of the warmest years on record. Given that many blazes are started by power lines and wildfires may cause widespread power outages, electric utilities have a significant role to play in solving the problem.

“The work ORNL is doing with sensor technology on drones that can go beyond line of sight is unique and very critical because it allows us to be several steps ahead of issues that can put the grid at risk, making it unreliable and less resilient,” Cedres said.

Cedres stated that the Department of Energy has two reasons for wanting to avoid fires near the electric grid: preventing fires from being started by the electric grid, and protecting the grid from fires. An ORNL team led by Peter Fuhr, head of ORNL’s Grid Communications and Security Group, is focusing on both of these problems. The team is also working on improving fire detection sensing for the U.S. Forest Service, which is primarily responsible for fighting wildfires.

In July, the White House explained that the Biden Administration is dedicated to studying wildfires and how to best protect people from them. Fuhr’s team continuously researches this topic so as to provide reliable information.

How Drones Can Help Prevent Wildfires

Sensors placed near power lines or in power electronics equipment may detect changes in power flow and cause superheated sparks. ORNL scientist Ali Ekti is working on an algorithm that can identify and categorize these electrical arcing events, as electricity travels through the air between two conductors at high speed.

Ekti is employing a library of wave form “signatures,” provided by utilities and universities, that exhibit spikes in voltage or current caused by anomalies such as arcing. His technique locates these anomaly regions. The next phase would be to train a software program to identify similar signatures and pinpoint where the arcing is happening. If the area is accessible, the algorithm, which may be implemented in power electronics equipment, will notify the utility command center so personnel may investigate it.

This is where drones can really shine. Arcing can occur in remote locations that are difficult to access. Small arcs may be hard to detect owing to their diminutive size or because they are hidden by other electrical components. They’re also more costly to fly and harder to schedule quickly, according on Fuhr.

“Drones are already out there doing vegetation management. So why don’t we use an additional technology on the same platform to check for arcing at the same time?” Fuhr said. “We’re establishing demonstrations in the coming year at utilities large and small across the nation.”

Drifting arc technology, even when used for commercial purposes, has a distinct potential to cause severe damage if not properly controlled. Drones with sensors that record video and detect heat, radio frequency signals, and other emissions from tiny arcs are an interesting alternative. These integrated senses can identify detected issues and counteract interference.

Drones not only help identify maintenance needs before fires start, but ORNL’s experience with operating drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) allows for transmission lines to be inspected over long distances too. Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration granted Fuhr’s team authorization to fly drones throughout the US, and up to 1,500 feet above ground level with special permission.

Although drone-mounted audio sensors traditionally have difficulty deciphering between the sound of arcing and that of a flying propeller, Ekti has created a mathematical method to successfully isolate the noise of arcing.

Helping Stop Fires After They’ve Started

Not every fire can be prevented like this, and most fires aren’t started by faulty electrical equipment. ORNL’s team is also working on getting drones into the fight against wildfires after they’ve started. In Montana near Kootenai National Forest, ORNL researchers will soon use drones to fly ahead of large flames and look for thermal signs of sparks.

This summer, the team put their technique to the test at a farm by lighting bonfires of burning gel fuel in contained areas. They did this to find out how high up a drone-mounted sensor would have to be to identify the tiny flames below. US Forest Service fuel specialist Marva Willey, who serves on the agency’s tools and technology team, said this capability could be a game-changer in fighting wildland fire.

“Heat-detecting sensors have so many applications that can increase our situational awareness and knowledge of where heat and fire are,” she said. “It’s all about knowing what’s going on before you put people out there.”

Willey stated that sensors attached to drones could help find new fires caused by embers, which can blow up to a mile from the main blaze. Since these embers usually lie hidden under a canopy of trees, where smoke isn’t visible, nothing else would be able to detect them — except for the drones. The drones could also be used to locate hot spots remaining in a burned-over area; as it stands now, firefighters have to search through ash manually to find any leftover hotspots.

“New Mexico was on fire earlier this year, and when you see the devastation that happened with the (2018) Camp Fire and the resulting bankruptcy of the utility – if our activities can reduce those kinds of outcomes, it’s good for everyone,” Fuhr said.

Featured image provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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