April 12, 2024

BurnBot is raising $20 million to build technology for wildfire prevention

BurnBot RX burns unwanted vegetation without emitting plumes of smoke.

Lora Kolodny for CNBC

Last year’s record heat wave exacerbated drought and dry conditions around the world, a particularly disastrous situation for California, where 13 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in state history have erupted since 2017.

In South San Francisco, a small startup is working on a high-tech approach to preventing wildfires.

Anukool Lakhina and Waleed “Lee” Haddad founded BurnBot in 2022 to develop robotics and remote-controlled vehicles that can eat and burn away invasive plants or other dry vegetation that could cause fires if left fallow.

BurnBot just raised a $20 million funding round led by climate-focused ReGen Ventures to expand, hire and develop new machines that can traverse steeper hills and get into tighter spaces.

Before BurnBot, firefighters and landowners had to use expensive, time-consuming and more dangerous options such as grazing vegetation (usually with goats), burning it, applying herbicides or mechanically removing vegetation using a mix of equipment and manual labor.

“The traditional way to perform a prescribed burn is with drip torches, and that requires a large number of people,” says Lakhina, CEO of BurnBot. “A drip burner is like a watering can for diesel. You go around, you drop diesel and then light it.”

Burnbot’s current model, the RX, is a remote-controlled vehicle that looks like a cross between an oversized Zamboni and a steel cooking stove with a set of fire extinguishers on the back. Like other agricultural and construction equipment, the RX rolls forward on tank-like tracks and wheels, allowing it to maneuver through rough fields.

Within the RX’s chambers are several rows of torches that emit blue flames and precisely adjust heat levels to zap away unwanted vegetation or other fuels on the ground below. The BurnBot RX’s chambers also trap the smoke from burning vegetation so it doesn’t pollute the air in surrounding communities. When the burn is complete, the RX sprays water repeatedly to extinguish the remaining embers.

Torches are lit in the chambers of the BurnBot RX to do the work of a prescribed burn.

Lora Kolodny for CNBC

Lakhina said BurnBot’s systems can be used where traditional controlled burns won’t work. For example, drip burn burns produce a lot of smoke, which is sufficiently conductive and would disrupt the proper functioning of power lines or high-voltage equipment. BurnBot’s machines can even be used under high-voltage power lines.

The company aims to make anyone working on fire prevention ten times more effective than with the old methods, Lakhina said.

Haddad, BurnBot’s chief technology officer, noted that land is not always ready to “receive fire” in a prescribed burn. So the company has programmed equipment, which it is purchasing from another supplier, to roll out in front of the RX and crush vegetation in a problem area before it is ready to be set on fire.

BurnBot plans to conduct a prescribed burn in San Diego this Friday, a project for CalTrans, the state’s transportation agency. There are also plans for a new burn Pacific gas and electricitythe state’s main utility, in June.

PG&E spends more than $1 billion each year on “vegetation management.” Kevin Johnson, who leads the company’s Wildfire Resilience Partnerships says PG&E is always “looking for opportunities to do this job more safely, quickly, cost-effectively and in a more environmentally friendly way.”

BurnBot has already completed one demonstration of its controlled combustion machine under PG&E transmission lines.

Brice Muenzer, a battalion chief at CalFire in Monterey, California, said massive fires in the state and across the U.S. over the past decade have been partly caused and certainly exacerbated by overzealous elimination of smaller fires, including ritual fires of indigenous communities.

“We have been removing fire from the ecosystem for the past 150 years and are now living in that reality,” the chief said.

CalFire has been working with BurnBot personnel, machinery and additional overhead drones to create a so-called line of control in the field in at least one location. Muenzer says the group hopes to do more with the startup.

Creating a line of control, or blackening the land, involves firefighters strategically burning areas when the weather is calm and where the flames can be controlled to create scars that prevent other fires from jumping in and reaching areas with lots of new material to burn.

BurnBot co-founders (LR) CTO Waleed “Lee” Haddad and CEO Anukool Lakhina

Lora Kolodny for CNBC

BurnBot aims to eventually expand its operations beyond California, with offices and fleets wherever vegetation management is needed and wildfire risk is greatest.

“There are 50 million acres that the U.S. Forest Service has said needs to be treated every year and that’s just forest land,” Lakhina said. In the U.S., there are a total of 237 million acres in need of treatment. And grazing can cost $1,000 per acre.”

Children’s health is at stake, along with property and healthy forests, Lakhina added. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, wildfire smoke can be more toxic than air pollution from other sources, leading to more emergency room visits, especially for children exposed to it.

Because BurnBot offers greater precision than grazing, herbicides and mechanical removal, the systems should also prove more environmentally beneficial, Haddad said. For example, the BurnBot RX can help prevent the spread of seeds of invasive species without any of these species developing resistance to a herbicide.

ReGen was joined in BurnBot’s funding round by investors including AmFam Ventures, the venture arm of an insurance company, Toyota Ventures, and previous backers including robotics fund Pathbreaker, Convective Capital and Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital.

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