Student “Project Firefly” aims to fight wildfires with sound and drones

Posted on February 15, 2022

During a three-week online challenge last year called #BeAPirate, participants were tasked to develop solutions for a better future, with support from international mentors. It was there that second-year Mechanical and Materials Engineering student Jesse Pound’s idea—Project Firefly—first sparked interest from investors and other students.

Project Firefly was developed as a way to fight against wildfires with vortex cannons and drones: vortex cannons emit pressure waves that manipulate air molecules, knocking out the sustaining factor of all fires. “Through the use of fluid dynamics,” she explains, “drones can then stop the fire from spreading and damaging outside areas.”

“I came across this article that briefly mentioned using sound to put fires out,” she says, “and I was interested in that, so I dug a little deeper and found a project that these two engineering students had done in 2016 where they used the literal speaker to put out a flame. And that was all I really found on the technology. Then I reached out to a company that was mentioned in one of the articles I read.” Though the drone company had established a working relationship with the  students, Pound discovered that they’d gone their separate ways. As such, she was able to reignite the company’s interest and discovered the only barriers to implement this technology were legal regulations and not the actual technology itself.

“It was actually just incorporating drones into airspaces where there are pilots already—specifically within the challenging wildfire zones. And so that was the Hackathon we presented– our solutions and recommendations on how to move forward.”

“Science cannot yet explain exactly how it works,” she says, “but basically, you're just changing the air pressure within a tube and forcing it out of a small opening at the end of it. It emerges as a fast-moving ball of air, and as it travels through the surrounding air it curls back in on itself to form a vortex ring. The vortex ring expands as it propagates, and it has positive pressure on one side and negative pressure on the other. So once it comes into contact with fire, these opposite pressure causes the fire plasma to be pushed and pulled away from it's fuel base. So essentially you're removing the fuel component of the fire triangle which effectively suppresses the fire.”

The goal of the technology is to help contain wildfires and prevent it from spreading. Firefighters move in the direction of the fire’s path and cut away forest and then, according to Pound, “they start their own little fires at the edge of the barriers they create, and these controlled fires collapse in on themselves and just burn the edges along this barrier, which prevents the fire from spreading. It's so resource-intensive, it's not sustainable, and sometimes these controlled fires actually just make the wildfire worse, so we need a better way to contain it, and that's where Project Firefly comes in.”

“We envision using drones with these vortex cannons attached to them,” she says, “and they'll work in swarms and just create barriers and kind of prioritize based on where the fire is progressing the fastest and where it's the most intense, and it'll just be a lot faster and easier for firefighters to just keep it contained while they work to put it out.”

As winners of the #BeAPirate challenge, Pound and her colleagues got to meet high level executives from Silicon Valley, including Google and Facebook. A city tour of San Francisco was also included as part of the prize.

She is now looking toward her future and the concerns that dovetail with her interests. “My top two priorities are that I care about the environment and climate change, and I care about having an impact,” she says. “And if I know those priorities then why wouldn't I start working on it now instead of waiting until I get a degree? I learned a lot of this just by talking to people. Just that in itself, building relationships and getting on calls with people, is a skill. And over the years, just by continuously doing it, I think I've gotten pretty good at that, and so that's been super helpful, just learning directly from people,” she says.

Where there was a spark, there is now a growing interest in ways to combat climate change in unconventional ways. Pound’s team made sure to set up meetings while in California to interest investors in Project Firefly. The initial stages require large infusions of capital and that’s exactly what they hope to gain from their impressive win. But, for now, she just hopes to continue her education at Queen’s and explore her passion projects outside of class.

And while classes have moved online for the first two months of this term, Pound and her collaborator have incorporated Project Firefly in Canada, received “a small bit of funding,” and found their way to New York where they’re developing the project further, and waiting to return to in-person classes the end of this month.


Jesse Pount (at left) in California. December 2021.