Sensors and drones help to predict the spread of fires.
The past few years have seen incidents of wildfires and forest fires become commonplace, as places around the world face drier and hotter weather due to climate change. Digital technology can play a major part in both preventing and fighting them.
Scientists predict that fires are only going to get worse as we move forward. In North America alone, the average fire season length has increased by almost 20 percent in the last 35 years, and the area that fires affect has doubled.
Authorities have been looking into the possibilities that technology can bring to predicting and preventing wildfires for some years now. The remote capabilities of digital technology solutions have been employed for a while in certain hazardous industries like mining or oil and gas, and the potential for keeping humans out of harm’s way where fires are concerned makes sense.
California is well-known for its annual problems with wildfires, and since 2013 the University of California Berkeley has had a team working on a project called the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit (FUEGO). This system employs both satellite and drone technologies to monitor wildfires at an early stage and before they grow out of control.
Satellites and bespoke software are used to pinpoint potentially dangerous fires and drones equipped with special infrared cameras are mobilized to track the fire’s progress. If it becomes a major threat, the system alerts and dispatches air tankers and ground firefighters to the fire’s location to control it before it spreads.
Drones have additional uses in combatting wildfires. They can be fitted with both regular and thermal imaging cameras and can fly into areas that manned aircraft can’t – including at night when winds die down and fires become theoretically easier to control.
In British Columbia, Canada, drones have been helped in at least 13 fires this year so far, being used primarily for mapping and hotspot detection. Drones are able to produce maps overnight which can be used by fire and evacuation crews first thing in the morning and also free up aircraft to do other vital work.
Another technological development that keeps humans out of harm’s way is the firefighting robot. Often wildfires get so hot that firefighters are unable to get close enough to extinguish them. Now engineers have come up with a firefighting robot that can. Thermite, developed by Howe and Howe Technologies in Maine, is a firefighting robot that can battle wildfires even in the most extreme conditions.
4. Virtual Reality (VR)
Used by organizations all over the world from the Red Cross to United Nations aid agencies, VR is helping fight wildfires too. The US Forest Service is employing VR to train smokejumpers – wildland firefighters who parachute into remote areas to combat wildfires – in a safe environment. The VR simulators create 3D representations of the fire scenario, with trainers able to change physical characteristics like wind direction and speed, to prepare smokejumpers for real life engagements in truly dangerous conditions.
Low-powered Internet of Things (IoT) connected sensors are also being used to gather data from remote areas that are potential wildfire hotspots. Sensors can be used to detect and measure the level of CO2 and check for unseasonably high temperatures, indicating the possible presence of fires in the area. Given that these connected devices require minimal power, a Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) such as LoRa is ideal here.
Early warning and detection systems, remote technologies and digital connectivity are helping to make wildfire-fighting a more proactive exercise, and also potentially driving down the costs of prevention. With California alone having incurred $6-$8 billion in fire damage per year in recent times, technology can have a positive impact in many ways on top of saving lives and protecting properties.