17-08-2021 | By Sam Brown

A project to develop fire detecting sensors in planes and satellites has been awarded $1.5 million. What challenges do wildfires present, what will the project aim to achieve, and are there earthly alternatives to sending sensors into space?

What challenges do wildfires present?

There is no doubt that wildfires can cause significant amounts of damage socially, economically, and environmentally. A wildfire that spreads out of control can devastate entire ecosystems by burning down habitats and killing any life that cannot escape. Furthermore, many homes are built either at the boundaries or in forests, making them just as vulnerable to burning down.

Some wildfires start from a natural process with dry kindling, a hot day, and a random event such as a meteor impact or lighting strike. However, most wildfires are a result of human activity, whether it be intentional or accidental. Intentional wildfires are defined as started when someone lights a fire and allows it to continue (i.e. arson). In contrast, unintentional fires can happen by using fireworks, unattended campfires, broken glass that behaves like a magnifying glass or even leaving combustible materials around.

However, to assume that all wildfires are destructive is false; wildfires can benefit the environment. The burning of a forest removes large older trees and vegetation and improves the nutritional quality of the underlying soil resulting from the leftover ash. From there, new species of trees and vegetation can grow to create a new rejuvenated environment. Some trees have lifecycles that rely on forest fires to spread their seeds and grow new plants.

Despite this, wildfires are generally destructive, costing billions in damages, ending lives needlessly, and creating ecological disasters. Stopping a small flame is easy. However, once a fire has taken hold, it is nearly impossible to stop. For each minute that fire continues to burn, it becomes increasingly more challenging to tackle, and this is why many forests employ firewatchers whose job is to look out for such fires.

Researchers granted $1.5m for a fire-spotting system

Recently, researchers from the University of California (Berkley) have been awarded $1.5m to develop sensor systems that may one day be mounted into satellites in orbit to detect wildfires while they are still manageable. One of the project leaders, Carl Pennypacker, has spent several years trying to obtain funding to develop a space-based fire sensor without success. However, the funding for the project will see sensors mounted into planes to determine their effects which may lead to their installation into satellites.

The project will also combine fire sensors with imaging technology and artificial intelligence to try and detect smoke rising in the sky. Furthermore, integration comes with artificial intelligence combined with weather data, including wind speed, direction, temperature, and pressure. Technology integration will enable future systems to predict where wildfires are likely to start and help develop how best to fight such fires.

If the project proves to be successful, the same systems will be deployed in satellites in orbit. The use of a geosynchronous orbit would position a satellite so that it can properly focus on a small area without needing to make adjustments. It's estimated that such a satellite could detect a fire just a few meters across, and such a fire could be instantly put out using traditional water-dropping planes.

Are there earthly alternatives to sensors?

One alternative solution could be the implementation of fire detects through vulnerable forests. Generally speaking, wildfires affect areas that experience hot and dry weather, meaning that sensor deployments could be focused on areas closer to the equator (however, wildfires can occur in latitudes as high as the UK and Russia). The use of fire-detecting IoT sensors in remote forests would not be able to use cellular networks and would have to use satellite technologies such as StarLink.

One non-tech method for preventing wildfires, ironically, is to have controlled wildfires. The practice of burning large amounts of land has been done by humans for thousands of years and is an excellent way to prevent uncontrolled fires. Simply put, a few people decide which area of land needs to be torched, they create fire barriers between the land and its surroundings, then they burn the land. This removes dead trees, debris, and anything else that may eventually cause a wildfire.

By Sam Brown