Smokey the Bear Meets the 21st Century in These Firefighting UAVs

Remember, only you can prevent forest fires. But that doesn't stop them from happening with frightening regularity and increasingly destructive force. To better understand and predict the atmospheric conditions that lead to these wildfires, one research team wants to float an armada of disposable, self-guided sensor-toting UAVs into the flames' maw. Finally, all those years of making paper airplanes in the back of the class are finally paying off.

The sensors, developed by a team from the University of Queensland, are designed to be dropped over a forest and relay sensor readings back as they slowly float to the ground giving forest managers a holistic view of the current fire danger conditions. The micro-UAVs come in two shapes: maple seed and paper airplane.

We've talked a bit about these devices before, but they're worth a closer look. The maple seed-shaped Samara UAV features a PCB board attached to a stiff metal (which also acts as an antenna) leading-edge and flexible wing. When it's dropped from a passing plane, the sensors will gradually propeller their way down like a slowly twirling helicopter.

This ensures that the sensor lands undamaged and can continue to report on conditions after landing. The tradeoff, of course, is that there's no means of actively controlling the UAV's flight path and it's therefore left to the mercy of prevailing winds.

The Polyplane, on the other hand, lands harder but can actively steer itself using a pair of tabs attached to the rear edge of its wing and onboard flight navigation firmware. Interestingly, the UAV's body is composed entirely of cellulose. This paper-like qualities not allow the vehicle to be printed in sheets and simply folded into the correct shape without the need for soldering but also decomposes readily in a wet aerobic environment. The material doesn't work very well in wet weather, but then again, neither do forest fires.

There's no word yet on if or when these devices will enter mass production. Hopefully they'll figure out how to recover all of the metal bits and that don't decompose before that happens and our forests are inundated with sensor scraps. [ITEE via Gizmag via Mashable]