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Flying bot could save firefighters' lives

Researchers are testing a small, unmanned aerial vehicle whose in-flight data is merged with Google Earth images, NOAA weather data, and fire-prediction software.

Highly sophisticated robots are being used in a variety of ways: think tsunamis, earthquakes, and land mines, to name a few. In the case of wildfires, though, they wouldn't survive long in the heat of battle.

Researchers flew their bot over a fire in West Virginia. University of Cincinnati

So a team of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Cincinnati is testing a tiny new aerial system designed to fly above fires to calculate the scope of damage and the anticipated path the fire will take.

"What we are designing is a complete system," says Kelly Cohen, associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, in a news release. "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."

The team just tested its bot--which weighs in at 5 pounds with a 54-inch wingspan and the ability to fly faster than 35 mph to altitudes of 10,000 feet--over a small, contained forest fire on November 5 in West Virginia.

"This test was a clear demonstration of the potential for this technology to limit wild land fire damage by saving money, lives, and land," says Robert Charvat, the graduate student leading the team who also participated in firefighter training while in West Virginia.

The SIERRA (Surveillance for Intelligent Emergency Response Robotic Aircraft) system's in-flight data merges with Google Earth images, NOAA weather data, and fire prediction software.

The system could also be designed to suit other situations, the students say, such as floods, earthquakes, and even air traffic control. Presumably it, unlike its flawed human counterparts, won't suffer "controller fatigue" and fall asleep on the job.