KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) scientists are working to take on what the lab describes as an urgent need: detecting, preventing, or reducing the damage caused by wildfires.

Because of that threat, ORNL is developing technology that can detect potential problems before they become full-blown emergencies.

“We were contacted by individuals at the U.S. Fire Service inside the Forest Service a couple of years ago,” explained Head of ORNL’s Grid Communications and Security Group Peter Fuhr. “To help the wildfire battles that were taking place in California at that time.”

Originally, the goal was to assist first responders during their battle with fires.

“We were asked to help design sensors that could then be deployed to help measure if asbestos is in the air when there’s a wildfire,” said Fuhr. “There was a natural gravitation toward types of sensors that could be used in the electric grid.”

An ORNL research team has demonstrated that thermal imaging sensors mounted on drones can sense the presence of fire under tree cover and indicate its size, even when there is little to no smoke. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Using sensors, including some attached to drones, the hope is that the devices can detect arching, which are variations in power flow that lead to superheated sparks.

An example of this fire-fighting technology includes drones with sensors that can monitor electrical grids for cases of excessive heat or arching (which is when there are spikes in voltage or power).

The drones can also be used to help firefighters find small embers or even fires that aren’t producing smoke. This can make it easier for first responders to know where to respond faster and with more accuracy.

This technology has been in the works for several years now and was even being tested during the Wears Valley fire earlier this year.

Another advantage of this technology? The drones’ ability to detect small embers that can only be seen by firefighters who are on the ground.

“If you can keep a human life from gearing up and going into a hazardous situation that’s unknown, then you can use your resources adequately to send in,” said Seymour Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Lisenbigler.

When it comes to the electrical grid angle, one fire department underscores the importance of having continual monitoring of potentially hazardous conditions.

“That’s got to be huge, especially for the power companies to know what their wattage is and if the wattage is being regulated,” said Jeff Bagwell, Public Information Officer for Rural Metro Fire Department. “From our end, it’s big just to know where the potential hazards may be.”

It’s important to note that this technology is still being perfected and it may be sometime before any of our local agencies see it in use.

Currently, Fuhr’s team is investigating other ways to prevent electrical fires using drone-mounted sensors. That includes detecting whether splices or transformers are generating excess heat.