With wildfires now ravaging western North America, a new team of onboard specialists hopes to develop a space-based solution to stop the fires before they get out of hand.
According to a statement from the University of California, Berkeley, the project could one day help future firefighters obtain “fire behavior” maps within 20 minutes of an outbreak, using satellite data combined with machine learning (a form of artificial intelligence).
The project, funded by a $ 1.5 million grant, will fund “observer aircraft” with infrared detectors – heat-seeking sensors to study the length and geometry of a flame to learn more about how fire spreads. Meanwhile, machine learning algorithms – provided they are well trained on other hot spot datasets – can detect new fires in a region in milliseconds and send alerts.
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If all goes well with aerial testing, the detector team, which includes the UC Berkeley Space Research Laboratory and Nevada-based fire assessment company Fireball Information Technologies, hopes to send similar sensors into space within four years to make monitoring and detection around the clock. activities.
However, the UC Berkeley statement did not detail which satellite or satellites the group is considering for their instrument and how (aside from sensor testing) they will be ready for a potential 2025 launch date – a relatively short timeline.
However, the researchers noted that aerial testing will be the key to success in space. “The aircraft system can measure levels and background signals as well as test data streams and analysis software. So when we launch a satellite in a few years, we will be using a well tested and proven system, ”said Karl Pennipacker, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. , the message says.
The team said in a statement that a typical wildfire burns more than 20 minutes before being reported, making it easy to get out of hand. Worse, global warming is causing an increase in the intensity and size of such fires due to drought, rising temperatures and declining humidity. Thus, more acres are burned every year, even though the number of fires has decreased due to improved training and technique of firefighters.
The researchers argue that faster adaptive solutions are needed. Fireball is trying to meet this need with planes, helicopters and drones, but the larger US Forest Service can only fire its detectors once every 24 hours at night, when fires are more easily detected by its infrared sensors.
“We plan to create a system that really provides better, more detailed spatial fire characterization for firefighters in real time,” Tim Ball, former firefighter, founder and president of Fireball, said in the same statement. Benefits will include improved safety for firefighters and easier strategic decision making, he said.
A new grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will allow the team to test the sensors in the air, ahead of their desire to place the device aboard a geosynchronous satellite pointing to the western United States or other fire-prone international regions.
Since such satellites rotate at the same speed as the Earth below, they will provide constant monitoring of the region. From space, the detectors can detect fires of up to two semi-trailers together – provided they perform as expected in an aerial test.
Pennipacker once hoped to be able to single out an entire satellite to monitor the fire, dubbed the Geostationary Fire Urgency Estimator (FUEGO). While the project has yet to come to fruition – the statement says Pennipacker has “lowered his scope slightly” – he instead delved deeper into aerial surveillance and analysis software.
Pennipaker also has experience with the ALERTWildfire group at the University of California, San Diego, which has near-infrared cameras throughout California that watch fires. The cameras have the ability to pan and tilt, and can confirm wildfires one to five minutes after a fire, the team said.
“This is what sets what we do differently,” said Ball, who also works with ALERTWildfire. “We can measure tiny pinpoint fires and huge flame fronts, and then deliver maps showing the size, intensity, and speed of the flame to firefighters on the ground in just a few minutes.”
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