The recent wild fires across Portugal and Spain as well as on the other side of the globe in California are bleak warning signs of what the future could hold as climate change progresses.
As drier and warmer areas are becoming even more so, the frequency of wild fire outbreaks is likely to rise, and once a wild fire rages it is becoming more challenging to put out.
This is one of the reasons why scientists across the globe are racing with time to develop more effective firefighting technologies.
In a major multi-million euro international collaboration funded by the European Commission, research groups of 20 institutions from 10 countries, including the London-based University of Westminster’s Department of Engineering, came together to achieve a major breakthrough in firefighting technology.
In a project called Advanced Forest Fire Fighting (AF3), we developed a new system which can detect and monitor large scale fires which is set to revolutionise how firefighters approach forest fires.
So how does the new technology work? The fire detection and monitoring system developed by the Westminster team consists of ground and aerial components that communicate to work together. On the ground, sensors called Low-Power Wireless Ground Sensor Nodes (LPWGSN) provide the fire services with invaluable information about environmental factors contributing to the fire, including location, temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and direction, carbon-dioxide, carbon-monoxide and oxygen levels.
In the air, accompanying drones help with imaging, spectral analysis, burning biomass estimates and reconnaissance. The two components together can detect wild forest fires in their early stages and can monitor them in real time, enabling large scale fire-fighting services to target fires with unprecedented precision, day and night.
The complete system, developed during the AF3 project, allows firefighters to drop pellets – filled with water or fire-retardant mixtures contained in biodegradable plastic pouches – from the air quickly and with precision, targeting the areas to most effectively extinguish the fire. This can ultimately protect human lives, the environment and property, taking fires under control and putting them out before they spread.
The new sensor nodes and drone technology developed at the University of Westminster’s Applied DSP and VLSI Research Group (ADVRG) have already been successfully tested in real-life fire scenarios in Greece, Spain and Israel.
These tests have proved their worth in being cost-effective and ground-breaking in making the different parts of the system function effectively, helping firefighters get to the heart of the problem and address the fires quickly and more efficiently.
This is a step change in the way wild fires and other forms of urban fires will be detected and stopped in their tracks before they spread and cause irreversible damage to the environment, wildlife as well as loss of human life.
The days of having a need for visibility, and highly skilled pilots to undertake dangerous, sometimes inaccurate and ineffective water drops on wildfires will be soon over. The intelligent sensors and sensor network we have developed focuses on power autonomy and is designed around a ‘deploy and forget’ paradigm, enabling automated, large scale strategic distribution in forests having high risks for fires, the number of which is on the rise.