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Electrical engineering junior teaches firefighters to fly

Muhammad Al-Rawi prepares a quadcopter for takeoff.

Muhammad Al-Rawi was one of six University of Missouri students — two journalism undergraduates, two journalism grad students and a forestry major — to help the fire brigade train to use the quadcopters as part of fire management in the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste, located north of Liberia, Costa Rica. Photos courtesy of Francis Joyce.

College students nationwide took Spring Break trips to a variety of warm locales. Muhammad Al-Rawi, a junior electrical engineering major, was no exception, spending his brief respite in Costa Rica. Al-Rawi’s trip differed from most, though; he spent his time teaching members of the Santa Rosa Program Protection and Fire Brigade how to pilot quadcopters.

Al-Rawi was one of six University of Missouri students — along with two journalism undergraduates, two journalism grad students and a forestry major — to make the trip to train the fire brigade to use quadcopters as part of fire management in the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG), located north of Liberia, Costa Rica. The group was led by Bill Allen, an associate professor of journalism at MU who specializes in science journalism.

Allen selected Al-Rawi for the trip based on the work the engineering student has done building and repairing quadcopters and working with students as a teaching assistant for Allen’s “Civilian Drone Issues, Applications and Flight” course.

“About four weeks before this trip came to be, he told me he had been in conversation with the ACG , and they brought up the idea of using drones, or radio-controlled quadcopters, for the conservation side of the table,” Al-Rawi said.

Members of the fire brigade wanted to learn how to fly the quadcopters in order to more effectively fight the frequent fires — both wild and man-made — during the dry season. Man-made fires are often the result of arson and uncontrolled prairie burns on surrounding farms spreading into the park.

The ability to map out the fires and the total acreage they cover, as well as possible causes, is increased when aerial photos become available. And camera-toting drones are a more cost-efficient option for the fire brigade than renting a helicopter or plane. According to a Newsweek article about the trip written by Paige Blankenbuehler — one of the J-School grad students on the trip — the Santa Rosa brigade has 13 full-time firefighters and 53 volunteers, and they’ve “been fighting and managing fires without air support, relying on a modest artillery of brooms, leaf blowers, fire backpack pump systems and a small fleet of vehicles.”

“The idea was you could take a quadcopter that can take off in a small area and go up there and just look around, maybe take pictures for later analysis,” Al-Rawi said.

“They usually send a couple of people to go walk the fireline, and it’s risky because you can run into a situation where you’re surrounded [by fire]. After the fact, their GIS (geographic information system) guy has to go walk the line for later analysis to figure out how much land was actually damaged that year. Now, they can get up there and look and take pictures that are geolocated.”

A limited time frame didn’t allow the team to construct a quadcopter of their own nor customize an existing system to fit an exact set of needs, so the team purchased a ready-to-fly Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) Phantom Vision+ and three Phantom 1 quadcopters, with the latter three used for practice purposes. The biggest difficulties arose in fighting the wind and software and hardware limitations with both the drones and the cameras. Both could potentially be corrected given more time and resources for customization.

“Now that I understand the environment and requirements more intimately, designing and building an aircraft that can check all the boxes of this specific application is my medium/long-term personal project,” Al-Rawi said.

Al-Rawi’s involvement began with a presentation on quadcopter basics — topics such as indicator lights, turning the drone on and off, GPS lock and so on. He said the fire brigade’s potential pilots took relatively quickly to the mechanics of piloting the drones, with some predictably picking it up more naturally than others. A volunteer from Germany became the brigade’s designated pilot for the time being. The biggest adjustment was learning to steer the aircraft when its designated front was facing a different direction than the pilot.

The team and fire brigade also had a chance to test the capabilities of their drones on a pair of fires during the brief trip. Getting a chance to put the quadcopters through their main purpose paces was one of the highlights of a six-day trip.

“It’s one thing to teach Bill’s students to fly, which is nice, because I’m sure some of them will go out there and apply it one day,” he said. “But it’s a whole different experience to actually teach someone who’s going to go pick up the device, turn around and go apply it on the spot, on site. It’s an actual demand that’s needed right now, and now to some degree fulfilled.”