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Feature Article: During Busy Wildfire Season (and Pandemic), S&T Focus on Sensors Burns Bright

Feature Article: During Busy Wildfire Season (and Pandemic), S&T Focus on Sensors Burns Bright

Release Date: 
September 22, 2020

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And where there’s a real-world technical challenge, there’s the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) to provide an innovative solution.

The United States has a long history of raging wildfires ravaging our lands – destroying property and claiming lives. Smokey Bear has been warning “only you can prevent wildfires” since the 1940s. And with dozens of wildfires ruthlessly burning at this very moment, 2020 is shaping up to be yet another brutal year for California. The current Smart City Internet of Things Innovation (SCITI) Labs program is addressing this threat. It’s also making S&T history. 

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For the first time ever, SCITI Labs has gone virtual. A global pandemic isn’t something they anticipated, but the program organizers and participants have proven their adaptability and ambitious spirit by taking the challenging circumstances in stride. On July 31, four performers – Ai4 Technologies, Inc. of San Francisco, California; Breeze Technologies UG of Hamburg, Germany; N5 Sensors, Inc. of Rockville, Maryland; and Valor Fire Safety of Londonderry, New Hampshire – participated in a virtual presentation and demonstration of their capabilities to S&T. That’s not the only way they’ve distinguished themselves, though. 

All four industry partners in the Wildfire Sensor Technology effort have progressed to Phase II. The new effort was announced earlier this year, and while it is typical for the Phase I evaluation process to weed out a few less promising prototypes, all of these inventions impressed. 

S&T established SCITI Labs in partnership with the Center for Innovative Technology, TechNexus, and Smart City Works to help technologies along the journey to commercialization, providing market access and development capital. The program brings together key government and private sector partners to identify new and existing technologies that enhance public safety.

The process begins when a need is identified. In this case, Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 9, which includes California, Arizona, and other wildfire-prone states, requested a low-cost technology that can detect, track, and alert state and local emergency management, utilities, and citizens of a threatening wildfire. They need ground-based wildfire sensors to enhance preparedness. The goal is to track as close as possible to the spark point, providing early warning and thus a faster and safer response. FEMA is specifically concerned about populated urban areas alongside wildlands and forested areas prone to wildfires. 

“The October 2017 Northern California wildfires caused historic levels of destruction and loss of lives,” said United States Fire Administrator G. Keith Bryant. “These fires prompted immediate research into how our nation could enhance its response to wildfires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency/United States Fire Administration has collaborated with S&T and determined the wildland-urban interface (WUI) was a key point of concern and an optimal area to explore technology innovations. The SCITI Labs endeavor to develop ground-based wildfire sensors addresses key findings of the WUI Fire Operational Requirements and Capability Analysis. We hope to enhance our national preparedness and ultimately save lives.” 

FEMA and state and local fire agencies have specified requirements for real-time and continuous identification of heat sources, smoke, particulates, organic compounds, gases, and chemicals to detect ignition location, track fire perimeters/characteristics, and allow for geographically targeted notifications and warnings. An ideal device will use intelligent sensor networks to monitor air quality, which is not only critical for early wildfire detection and preparedness but will also inform day-to-day operations. 

With a national security requirement identified, the SCITI Labs process begins. A call for submissions is issued and interviews are conducted. It is highly competitive. To be a game changer, a company must have brilliant research, combined with business sense. Through SCITI Labs, S&T continuously keeps a close watch on hundreds of companies that are poised to breakthrough. Because SCITI Labs is so plugged in to up-and-coming technologies, the process is relatively quick. Less than two months have likely gone by when S&T is ready to partner with the top candidates as subcontractors and set innovation in motion.

The chosen performers for the Wildfire Sensor Technology initiative entered Phase I at the beginning of February. Each set out to create the best solution to meet the operational needs specified by FEMA. It is also during Phase I that participants are encouraged to build relationships with public safety, government, and commercial stakeholders as they develop their prototypes.

The original plan was for each of the innovation teams to perform live demonstrations of their conceptual prototypes for S&T’s Sensors and Platforms Technology Center in June. COVID-19 of course made an in-person evaluation impossible. However, necessity is the mother of invention and she waits for no one. SCITI Labs quickly adapted test plans to enable virtual demonstrations. 

“SCITI Labs is all about meeting emerging needs, so naturally we didn’t hesitate to adapt the program itself,” explained S&T Research Lead Jeff Booth. “We’ve never done virtual demonstrations before, but everyone really came together to make it possible – and the results from the performers were truly impressive. We provided the requirements and parameters for testing and each company was able to accurately record and present the necessary data for their technology.” 

The performers explored the use of visual detection using artificial intelligence, particulate and smoke sensing, air quality and infrared sensors, and more to provide information about the environment and theoretically inform real-time alerting to first responders and communities. Participants in the tests included Hamburg’s Fire Brigade in Germany; CalFire, Santa Clara Fire Department; San José State University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory; and local property owners. 

Having proven their prototypes can accomplish the task put forth, the innovation teams will now focus on the ‘commercial first’ approach to ensure a market-ready product that’s usable, affordable, and scalable to suit mission needs. Phase II will include laboratory evaluations and outdoor tests with operational partners, including FEMA and state and local emergency response agencies. The evaluations will provide the opportunity for continued technology enhancement, refinement, and application to customer requirements. Phase II will last up to 12 months, at which point the SCITI Labs team will work with the four industry partners on preparing the technologies for operational testing and commercialization.

In the end, we will have a new technology that saves lives, limits property damage, and focuses the efficiency of responder resources. Learn more about how SCITI Labs ensures the nation’s critical infrastructure and those who protect it are secure and resilient by visiting our website. You can also review some of the great online resources FEMA has related to wildfire preparedness.

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