Proposed global satellite network could detect wildfires in 15 minutes

Proposed global satellite network could detect wildfires in 15 minutes

06 December 2015

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USA– A San Francisco-based company wants to turn technology developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory into a global network of satellites that can report a wild fire anywhere in the world within 15 minutes.

The FireSat system, built around a low-power sensor that can detect fires once they reach 35 to 50 feet, would notify emergency services within three minutes after the detection. The system of more than 200 satellites would provide almost nonstop wildfire detection from space.

“You basically get coverage of every location on earth, once every 15 minutes,” said Arthur Lane, technical coordinator for FireSat at Quadra Pi R2E, the San Francisco Company behind the program.

The coverage would allow FireSat to spot fires in remote locations where someone isn’t likely to see the smoke. Existing fire-searching satellites can only detect fires about twice a day, according to JPL.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest division, which includes California, oversees more than 21 million acres of land, including remote locations in the Sierra Nevada, Cascade and San Gabriel Mountains. So far this year, the forest service battled more than 1,635 wildfires, with 300,000 acres burned, according to spokesman Stanton Florea.

“Absolutely, it’s important to detect fires early on,” he said.

More than 1,000 of the fires started with lightning strikes in remote areas where detection comes from watch towers, cameras and other technologies, he said. This year, more 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget went to firefighting, with the annual cost expected to hit $1.8 billion by 2025.

FireSat didn’t fall within NASA’s space exploration mission, but it also didn’t fit within the budget of the U.S. Forest Service, saod Robert Staehle, assistant division manager for Advanced Concepts at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. So JPL made their discovery available commercially, he said.

“If you save one fire a year that costs $100 million to suppress, for a subscription service that a forest service might buy for a lot less than $100 million a year, that sounds like a pretty good deal,” Staehle said.

The technology behind FireSat combines hardware and software developed by JPL, with a commercially available infrared imaging sensor from Ecliptic Enterprises Corp., a Pasadena-based company.

Lane said his company, Quadra, has secured an agreement with a telecommunications company planning to launch dozens of satellites by 2018. The FireSat sensors would piggyback on those satellites, allowing Quadra to get the project into orbit without the costs of building and launching its own satellites, Lane said.

FireSat not only detects fires, but because the large constellation of satellites is constantly passing overhead, it can provide updates on the growth every 15 minutes too.

On the other hand, because it’s a commercial enterprise, there’s no guarantee it will happen. Quadra is trying to raise money for JPL’s initial design through a Kickstarter. If the Kickstarter fails, Lane said Quadra will pursue other funding options. It had raised only $5,232 of its $280,000 goal as of Friday, with 12 days to go.

The problem is that FireSat has to be ready when the satellites launch, as no other companies plan to launch as many satellites in the next five years, Lane said. Without enough satellites, FireSat becomes ineffective.

If FireSat launches, it will pay for itself through a subscription aimed at fire departments, forest services and large businesses. There’s a possibility that FireSat could also be used to detect oil spills, a service likely to appeal to certain investors, Lane said.

The technology behind FireSat came out of JPL’s space exploration missions. The need to decipher images onboard a rover, without sending the image back to the ground team, led to the creation of detection software and a processor capable of running it. When NASA wants to find a specific type of rock formation, or in one case, capture images of dust devils, it uses that system, instead of sending every image back to earth for analysis.

FireSat uses the same technology to search for fires, allowing it to avoid needing a large — and expensive — amount of bandwidth.

JPL first presented the concept to the joint NASA/U.S. Forest Service Tactical Fire Remote Sensing Advisory Committee in 2011.

“It could have most of the brains of fire detection on board the instrument, instead of sending loads of data to the ground for detection,” said JPL’s Staehle. “You could have rapid detection of forest fires, and do it for a price that is reasonably affordable.”

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