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Using drones to advance wildfire science

Associate Professor Mrinal Kumar (left) with Bryce Ford, an undergraduate researcher in his laboratory.
Associate Professor Mrinal Kumar (left) with Bryce Ford, an undergraduate researcher in his laboratory.

Mrinal Kumar is developing autonomous drone technology that could one day help prevent and mitigate wildfires. Ultimately, the mechanical and aerospace engineering associate professor hopes to remove people from wildfire missions that involve dangerous and repetitive actions.

Wildfires are gruelingly difficult to fight, and their behavior and spread are notoriously hard to predict. They can also travel up to 14 miles per hour.

Kumar leads a multidisciplinary team that earned National Science Foundation funding to address the challenges of using unmanned aerial systems to monitor spread and intensity of wildland fires.

The team is also exploring how topographic, atmospheric and forest fuel factors in temperate hardwood forests influence fire intensity and rate of spread through real-time data activation in fire behavior models. His collaborators include the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry, and researchers from the Ohio State College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and Syracuse University.

The project will focus on fighting catastrophic fires in the eastern United States, which are expected to become more frequent and intense in the future due to climate change.

“While the bulk of research in technology use during wildfires has focused on fires in the west, we are focused on the eastern U.S. to hopefully get ahead of the increasing intensity that is predicted over the next several years,” Kumar explained.

Long-term, this work will aid in managing the wildland-urban interface, and monitoring and suppressing unplanned wildfires.

As the inaugural Elizabeth Martin Tinkham Endowed Professor, Kumar receives funding that will not only bolster his wildfire research, but will also support the team of graduate and undergraduate students who help conduct that work.

“There are so many ways an endowment like this will make an impact,” he explained. “Both in terms of research, as well as mentorship and creating opportunities for students, especially underrepresented students.”

Kumar plans to use some of the professorship funds to purchase a new hyperspectral imaging sensor that can provide detailed views of hydrocarbon levels on the forest floor. That data can be used to determine how hot fires may get and how quickly they may spread.

“These sensors are very expensive—$30,000 to $60,000,” he said. “Having this endowment gives us the ability to think about that as a practical addition to our existing suite of sensors and will have a tremendous impact.”

The funding will also help create a new position for a PhD student in Kumar’s lab. Unlike government grant funds that require finding students who already possess skills required for a particular project, the Tinkham Professorship will enable him to mentor students so they can add to their research skillsets.

“Even though the student may not start out as being a perfect fit, this funding allows me to create some breathing space to allow for the student to grow,” said Kumar.

The professorship that supports Kumar’s work was established by a generous gift from distinguished aeronautical and astronautical engineering alumna Liz Tinkham ’84 and her husband, John Tinkham.

“If I think about the best use of money I've ever had, it was my education at Ohio State for sure,” Tinkham said. “I've always wanted to give back because I got so much more out of it than what I paid financially. It was a fantastic education, not just in the engineering school, but the other classes I took, being on campus and everything else I learned.”

Beyond advancing cutting-edge research and education in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Tinkham hopes her gift to create an endowed professorship will inspire other alumni, especially women, to support Ohio State.

“I’m a huge believer in state schools because I think they afford more opportunities to more kids,” explained the former long-time Accenture senior executive who is currently an adjunct business professor at the University of Washington and serves on several corporate boards. “State universities provide the opportunity for the democratization of education and the quality of the university’s instructors are key to educating our students and future generations.”

Her investment in research and education is also extremely motivating to Professor Kumar and his students.

“Students see themselves in the donor,” he explained. “It's a position they could reach at some time in the future. I'm just the medium in between where they are and what they could become—it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

This article originally appeared in Forward 2021-22, the college’s annual philanthropy report. Read the full issue.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,