Smoky Spectra – Finding Forest Fires with Spectrometry

Smoky Spectra – Finding Forest Fires with Spectrometry

29 May 2013

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Portugal / Global — This week, I’ve spotted another clever use for existing scientific technology…

A system for automatically detecting, locating and tracking forest fires makes use of spectrometry, seeking out the distinctive spectral signature of burning organic material. Deployed in Portugal, the system helps to protect 700 km2 of national park.

Forest fires are a significant problem, responsible for a number of fatalities as well as severe economic impact from loss of property and livestock. In 2012, the US National Interagency Fire Centre recorded 67,744 wild fires, affecting over 9 million acres, and massive bushfires are a common occurrence in Australia. Early detection can dramatically reduce the damage done by a wildfire, and as such, fire detection has often adopted scientific developments.

In the early 20th Century, fires were spotted by human lookouts stationed on towers, who would report back by any means available; carrier pigeon, heliograph, telephones and radio communications all featured. As technology developed, instant aerial photographs and infrared scanning improved detection and satellite communications improved reporting of incidents.

Automated and integrated systems followed soon after, including wireless sensor networks and satellite surveys such as Envisat and the European Remote Sensing Satellite, both capable of identifying hotspots of infrared radiation.

Modern remote fire detectors should be fast, cheap, reliable and able to pinpoint the location of a newly started fire. To try to meet these aims, the Forest Fire Finder, developed by Portuguese company NGNS, incorporates detection, analysis and communication tools into one potentially solar-powered unit.

Using an Avantes AvaSpec spectrometer in combination with cameras and telescopes, the Forest Fire Finder can distinguish organic smoke caused by a forest fire from that caused by less sinister sources, such as factory output. Spectrometry – a technology which usually resides with chemists identifying substances or astronomers probing distant stars – is used to measure the absorption spectra of sunlight that passes through the smoke. It may also be possible to observe the direct radiation from burning material, in order to detect fires at night. NGNS claim this system can spot a fire from a distance of up to 15 km.

A positive detection sets off a chain of actions; recording images & meteorological data, triangulating the location as GPS coordinates and communicating this either by SMS to a mobile unit or uploading it to a central server. The system should be able to identify a fire within 5 minutes of the smoke rising above the canopy, and NGNS hope that the plethora of information available to firefighters will help them to tackle a blaze before it gets out of hand.

Thirteen of these systems have been deployed in Portugal’s Peneda-Gerês National Park, and other projects are in the works worldwide. For me, this is further proof that innovative combinations of technologies and techniques, often borrowed from well-established sciences, can help to observe, monitor and understand the world around us. Similar technologies could detect plumes of pollution or gas leaks around pipelines, allowing us to react more quickly to stem potentially harmful events.

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