Tracking wildfire smoke: EPA researchers make better maps with drones

Read the full story from U.S. EPA.

Wildfires cause dangerous flames, inescapable gray soot, and clouds of smoke that can travel hundreds of miles. Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from everything burned by fire, including vegetation, buildings, and other materials. Breathing it in can cause coughing, trouble breathing normally, stinging eyes, and a scratchy throat – or worse. To help protect communities affected by wildfire smoke, EPA researchers take air quality measurements to better understand the chemistry of smoke and improve models used to predict where smoke from wildland fires will travel. Being in the path of the smoke plume is dangerous for everyone – including firefighters and the scientists who study the effects and spread of wildfire smoke.

Airplanes and helicopters are often used to track fires, but they’re costly and can’t fly in poor conditions. Flying over huge forest fires is also risky for the pilots and crew.

That’s where using an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) can help. A UAS can fly without having a person present in or on the device. Also known as drones, they are an emerging research tool that may provide a safer, more cost-effective, and more comprehensive approach than traditional, ground-based research methods. Drones can be equipped with cameras and sensors and zip through spots that helicopters can’t safely access.

EPA researchers have developed an air emission sensor and sampling instrument to use on a UAS and in other applications. The shoebox-sized equipment is called the Kolibri, which means “hummingbird” in several languages. It’s a lightweight system that weighs up to eight pounds and can record and send data in real time.

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