NIMBUS Lab receives new grant for fire-ignition drone project

Oct 12, 2016      By Victoria Grdina

Unmanned Aerial System for Firefighting
Unmanned Aerial System for Firefighting

The Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab received a new grant to continue work on its fire-starting drone project. 

The project aims to develop drones with the capabilities to start and monitor controlled fires in order to better manage wildfires and protect firefighters. With new funding from the National Science Foundation as part of the National Robotic Initiative, the NIMBUS Lab and its partners will be able take what they’ve created a step further.

“This is a completely new technology, so there’s not much out there for us to know what works and what doesn’t,” said computer science professor Sebastian Elbaum. “That’s part of the discovery now.”

The fire-starting drone, or Unmanned Aerial System for Firefighting, is designed to fight fire with fire. Starting prescribed fires consumes the fuels that cause wildfires to grow out of control and helps combat invasive species like red cedar trees. Firefighters have been working with prescribed fires for years, but at high costs and great personal risk. The drones will allow them to ignite and monitor fires remotely without entering into extreme danger.

The new grant received in September will allow the group to move into the next phase of work on the project, which will focus on improving the existing technology, making it safer and more powerful, and helping users become more comfortable with it. This includes enhancing the communication between the drones and firefighters with additions like responsive gestures, such as the drone shaking to signal that it has become too hot. Elbaum said the goal is that by the end of the grant, which is currently estimated for July 2019, firefighters will be much closer to using the drones safely and effectively.

“Every grant that we get pushes technology forward in our field, but not on every grant that we get are we able to deliver and deploy something that can impact people in a relatively short term like we’re hoping to do,” Elbaum said. “Having the potential of doing something deep in technology, but also something that has impact while we’re doing it—it’s extremely satisfying.”

In addition to the Computer Science and Engineering students and faculty in the NIMBUS Lab, the project also involves faculty from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Public Policy Center. Elbaum said that their expertise in environmental science and human reactions to fire has greatly contributed to the success of the project and given students the chance to explore other disciplines and fields.  

“Besides pushing the technology forward, a key part of this effort is about the development of the students,” Elbaum said. “They’re getting an amazing experience. They’re learning computer science, robotics, software engineering, and they’re also learning a lot about the environment. And our colleagues at East Campus are learning a lot about technology. They’re spending a lot of time with us in our lab, and I think that’s good for everyone.”

The NIMBUS Lab is currently accepting applications for three talented students to join the project this year. Interested and motivated undergraduate and graduate students should visit the NIMBUS Lab website and contact the NIMBUS directors with a CV at

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Watch BTN LiveBIG Nebraska's video featuring the NIMBUS Lab and its drones.