I’d rather fight 100 structure fires than a wildfire. With a structure fire you know where your flames are, but in the woods it can move anywhere; it can come right up behind you. ~Tom Watson
Unfortunately for our friends in California, it is fire season. As I write this, fast-spreading wildfire is prompting evacuations in Southern California and the hills of the San Francisco Bay Area. Utilities in California have cut power from thousands of customers as strong winds and dry conditions create a high risk that power lines could spark additional disastrous wildfires. Fortunately, technology is being used to reduce the impact of future fires.
In this issue, I cover computers that predict how wildfires will spread, how autonomous robots fight dangerous fires, and how swarms of drones can reseed devastated forests.
How Supercomputers Can Help Fix Our Wildfire Problem
It’s one thing to spot wildfires and fight them, but how do you predict when and where the next fire will ignite? It turns out weather forecasting technology can help predict wildfires.
But wildfires also create their own weather patterns. … Wildfires don’t yet have the equivalent of a grand unified model to explain their behavior. The contributing factors are just so different, and work on such different scales — air dynamics for one, the aridity of local vegetation for another. “That’s what’s really difficult from a modeling standpoint,” says Kochanski. You can’t hope to model a 50-square-mile wildfire with millimeter-scale resolution. So researchers like Kochanski simplify things. “We don’t really go into looking at how every single flame burns every single tree and how it progresses. No, we assume fuel is relatively uniform.”
Good News: FIRETEC produces valuable physics-based data on fire dynamics to inform how to do prescribed burns. Now airborne and ground-based LIDAR (the same kind of technology that helps self-driving cars) is being used to detail vegetation underneath the trees, so firefighters know where to do the burn.
Autonomous Bots Battle Blazes Too Dangerous for Firefighters
How do you get firefighters close to high-value sites in the face of a raging wildfire or dangerous chemical fires? Robots, of course!
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is no stranger to the development of disaster relief robots — having created a plant inspection bot and a long-necked bot to help with cleanup operations at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant a few years ago and a remotely-operated anti-explosive robot for working in gas-filled environments, for example.
Good News: Now, Mitsubishi has come up with a pair of firefighting robots that work together in situations deemed too hazardous for human crews. The robots use a combination of GPS and laser sensors to drive themselves to a designated location near the fire. The Hose bot then drives to a water source, laying out a fire hose connected to the Cannon bot, which douses the flames with water or foam.
Swarms of Drones Plant Trees in Devastated Areas
So how do you restore large areas that have been devastated by wildfires? It turns out that planting trees is not as easy as tossing seeds around like Johnny Appleseed.
Every year, wildfires in the U.S. burn an average of 7 million acres, and our current method of replacing lost trees isn’t exactly ideal. “Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees,” entrepreneur Grant Canary told TechCrunch.
Good News: DroneSeed has come up with a high-tech solution to the problem of planting seeds in areas devastated by wildfires. It involves a combination of drones, artificial intelligence, and bioengineering. Using an AI model, drones decide where to plant seeds and actually plant them — two tasks previously carried out by humans. The drones don’t merely drop seeds on the ground, but drop small pucks of nutrients with a seed and a dusting of hot pepper to deter animals from eating them!
Devastating wildfires seem to be the new normal with our warming climate. However, modern technology promises to help predict the occurrence and path of fires, help put out the flames and assist in restoring our forests. Maybe we also need people to move to the cities and abandon increasingly vulnerable forested habitats.