The words “research and development” may conjure images of someone wearing a white coat, sitting in a sterile lab and looking through a microscope, but sometimes it means rising before dawn, lacing up hiking boots, leading a caravan of trucks filled with scientific equipment, and traversing the rugged foothills of Dye Creek Preserve near Red Bluff, California, to install sensors ahead of a prescribed burn. If that sounds like an impressive amount of dedication, it’s because it is. But Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) researchers don’t mind roughing it when a scientific breakthrough is on the line—especially one that could save lives.
Prioritizing wildfire sensor technologies for early warning
At the California field event back in June, S&T successfully tested four prototype technologies for early detection of wildfires, closing out Phase 1 of the Smart Cities Internet of Things Innovation (SCITI) Labs wildland fire sensor effort. SCITI Labs brings together government and private sector partners to identify technologies that meet first responders’ operational needs and ensure the nation’s critical infrastructure remains secure and resilient. This effort is especially timely given the extreme acceleration in fire emergencies across the West Coast in recent years.
“We are hopeful that wildland fire sensors can play a contributing role in the early detection of ignitions. If we can reduce the time it takes from ignition to detection to response then we may be able to prevent a small smoldering fire from becoming a catastrophic fire disaster,” said Jeff Booth, director of S&T’s Sensors and Platforms Technology Center.
During the field event, each of the four companies deployed eight sensors over two days. Afterwards, they produced reports explaining their ability to continue to enhance their products and quickly bring them to market. The reports also included a detailed analysis of sensor performance on factors such as smoke threshold detection levels, time and distance for alert generation from the point of ignition, number of false positive and false negative alerts, cost per unit, and dual-use capabilities. Based on these reports, the SCITI Labs team down-selected from four vendors to two in August.
Protecting the public, critical infrastructure in multiple ways
The site for Phase 1 field testing was selected by virtue of having suffered actual fires in the past. Sensors were deployed on portable masts and placed downwind to collect maximum data during the burn. Locations were varied by elevation, with some on hilltops and others down along riverbeds. Others were co-located with cell towers and power lines to see how well infrastructure could be protected.
Additionally, sensors were placed along roads to gauge how well they could differentiate between smoke from a fire and exhaust from a truck. Researchers sought to understand possible factors that could cause confusion, such as air pollution. A significant result of Phase 1 is the realization that these sensors could serve a dual use and the exciting potential for collaborations with air quality testing already being conducted. Air quality monitoring is a major concern for public health and safety—and a natural side benefit of a technology that’s closely cataloging the presence of particulates in the air.
“We are moving into Phase 2 of the research where we will refine the detection parameters and improve the form factors that would allow a variety of possible deployment opportunities. We hope to test the next version of the sensors in long-term field deployments next year and have received interest in collaboration from international partners in Australia,” said Booth.
Finding innovative ways to test and evaluate fire sensors during a pandemic
The field testing follows months of computer modeling and laboratory testing. COVID-19 forced researchers to adapt to a new, virtual approach during Phase 1 last fall, and made extensive laboratory modeling a necessity. Development teams were able to livestream the lab testing and pose questions to a fire scientist, allowing programmers to compare in real-time if systems were performing as designed.
The private engineering and consulting firm Jensen Hughes was enlisted to build the laboratory test environment, which included multiple chambers and a wind tunnel. The space allowed for complete command of numerous variables—permitting researchers to adjust distance from ignition, particulate levels, and the speed at which the particulates moved. The scientific rigor involved with the laboratory-based modeling has created a new capability that is now available to future projects. It is fortunate, though, that safely conducting in-person field testing was again possible in time for Phase 2.
Partnerships prove invaluable once again
This effort has been exceedingly successful thanks to enthusiastic participation from key partners. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) manages a significant amount of land in California and is a major force for environmental policy. Their perspective has been quite welcome as researchers conceptualize additional applications for this technological innovation. With TNC guidance, the team is investigating how the sensors could help with water table management and protection of native species.
“Wildfires in California are a major risk to biodiversity and human well-being,” said Matt Merrifield, chief technology officer for TNC. “The Nature Conservancy is always looking for new technologies that can serve our mission and this is an exciting example of how we can leverage our portfolio of preserves to foster innovation in this area.”
The inclusion of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has also brought valuable insights. Their current standard procedure is to conduct general sweeps that are not focused. The implementation of reliable sensors would allow responders to receive an alert, concentrate resources, and send a plane to a specific area for validation. California stakeholders have also identified the ability to differentiate between types of fires as a new requirement for this project. Many blazes begin as a result of lightning strikes. Understanding if an alert is coming from a fire already being tracked or an entirely new one could change the response and help determine who has jurisdiction.
As of the end of August, CAL FIRE and partner agencies have managed 6,983 incidents so far this year. 2021 has already seen 1.8 million acres burned and nearly 3,000 structures damaged or destroyed. The hope is that innovations such as early warning sensors will help substantially diminish the destruction in future years.
Future plans and next steps
Now that the detection methods have been proven to work, the plan is to leave more than 100 sensors out in areas of interest and evaluate long-term performance. The prototypes must be refabricated to be able to withstand 3-6 months of harsh weather conditions, including rain and the California sun. Special consideration will be paid to power supply, such as photovoltaic solar panels, and how the communications package will function to consistently transmit the data captured. Planned enhancements include improving detection algorithms to leverage multiple sensors, detect multiple ignition points, decrease time to detection, and reduce false alert rates. Developers will seek to optimize communications and backhaul, improve the user interface, and incorporate meteorological sensors and capacity for off-grid deployment with solar recharging.
Additional tasks for Phase 2 include exploring software solutions for potential integration with existing first responder technologies and data sharing capabilities, as well as the identification of potential deployment locations for in-field testing during the 2022 fire season. Developers may explore pre-ignition gas emissions and possible thermal increases from transformers and other electrical equipment that could be picked up by the sensors as well.