AUB team invents new tool to help battle forest fires

AUB team invents new tool to help battle forest fires

9 September 2008

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Lebanon — A team of researchers from the American University of Beirut is in the process of developing a uniquesensor system that would help in the early detection of forest fires, an AUB said on Monday. Led by electrical and computer engineering professor Imad al-Hajj, the team of researchers has devised cell-phone-sized sensors that can detect humidity and temperature levels as well as smoke and sunlight intensity.

The project, which started less than a year ago, received seed funding from the Association for Forest Development and Conservation (AFDC), a local environmental nongovernmental organization. In its second phase, the project is also being funded by AUB’s Research Board and supported by the Department ofCivil and Environmental Engineering.

“We combined existing technology in one tool to create a unique kind of sensor that does not currently exist on the market,” Hajj said.

The sensors will be placed in strategic locations in forests in Lebanon, where they will periodically report measurements to an uplink, or Internet connection, which sends this information to a website containing a database that is accessible to a central operations center, called the Common Operations Room (COR), which is run by the Civil Defense, the Lebanese Army, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Environment Ministry, and the AFDC. The COR was set up by AFDC through a European Union-funded project.

Currently, forests cover only about 13 percent of Lebanese territory, representing a 40-percent degradation over the past 40 years. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, about 1,200 hectares of forests are burned annually. A 2005 AFDC study indicated that 28 percent of Lebanese forests are at risk of burning if nothing is done to prevent future fires.

That’s why the deployment of the wireless, battery-operated sensors could prove very helpful, as they are designed to will provide data that will help in three main aspects: early detection, prediction, and environmental research.

By monitoring early signs of smoke, the sensors should alert firefighters before the flames have consumed too much of a forest. Moreover, collecting data on humidity and temperature levels, combined with information from weather stations, will help scientists predict conditions that promote forest fires. Finally, the type and quality of data collected would be highly valuable for local and regional environmental studies.

In order to fully deploy the project and find out how many sensors are needed to cover all forested areas in Lebanon, the team is looking foradditional sources of funding.

“When fully deployed, this sensor system will help mitigate the effects of forest fires,” Hajj said. “Of course, the problem will not be fully solved, since many other aspects would still need to be addressed, such as clearing dry brush. But if we can save 1 square kilometer of forests, it’s still worth it, since any damage that happens is almost irreversible.”

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