How NAU is using thermal drones to track prescribe burns and water leaks

Northern Arizona University students using thermal drones to help monitor prescribed burns in wildland areas in northern Arizona.
Published: Sep. 20, 2023 at 6:44 PM MST
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FLAGSTAFF, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — Students at Northern Arizona University are getting hands-on experience flying drones thanks to funding from the Salt River Project and these students are already making real-world differences in our forests and our water system.

Leo O’Neill is a forestry graduate student at NAU. He got into forestry because of his interest in the impact of wildfires. Now, he gets to fly thermal imaging drones over prescribed burns. “Specifically looking at how we can evaluate prescribed burns and use the drone to evaluate these burns and look at if they’re effective at treating the landscape,” O’Neill said.

They look to see how effective the burns were at getting rid of excess fuel in the forest. So, when a wildfire starts, it is less fuel-driven. He said with their research, the U.S. Forest Service can then modify how and where they do prescribe burns. “It’s super cool. I’ve really enjoyed working with these tools. I never thought I’d be doing all this remote sensing,” O’Neill said. “The traditional method is to go there before and after so it takes a lot of time.”

But NAU’s drone work goes beyond our forest. Engineering graduate student Loran Call said they use an SRP thermal drone to check for water leakage in underground pipes in Phoenix. “With a thermal drone, we’re able to see those changes in temperature and we’re able to determine if there’s a leak or not,” he said

He said he’s thankful not only for the experience but for the difference they can make as students. “This isn’t a 100% tried and true method but it’s very promising and if it does work out, it could mean potentially saving thousands of gallons of water that are just going to waste,” Call said.

In total, SRP has provided $2.6 million across NAU, ASU, and UArizona to help fund research projects like these.

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