DHS S&T Continues to Explore Wildfire Sensor Technology
Tuesday, September 14, 2021 | Comments

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is moving into the second phase of its exploration into technology for early detection of wildfires.

At a field event in California in June, S&T successfully tested four prototype technologies for early detection of wildfires, closing out phase one 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,” said Jeff Booth, director of S&T’s Sensors and Platforms Technology Center. “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.”

During the field event, each of the four companies involved 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 narrowed the field of vendors from four to two in August.

The site for phase one 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 powerlines 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 one 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 two of the research where we will refine the detection parameters and improve the form factors that would allow a variety of possible deployment opportunities,” Booth said. “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.”

The field testing follows months of computer modeling and laboratory testing. COVID-19 forced researchers to adapt to a new, virtual approach during phase one 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.

Private engineering and consulting firm Jensen Hughes built 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 is again possible in time for phase two.

The project has been successful thanks to 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 helped 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 (CTO) 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 to the project. The 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 the 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.

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 three-to-six 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 two 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.

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