5x innovative solutions for fighting wildfires

1. Watching from very high up with satellites

Undercover: Prevention is better than cure, we can use satellites to predict wildfires. Such a satellite is full of sensors. ESA’s Sentinel-2 has a so-called multispectral instrument. This allows you to see thirteen different wavelengths of light, both visible and in the invisible infrared spectrum. It provides a lot of data. All this data is sent to Earth every five days.

You could also perhaps use such a detection system to predict forest fires. It is already possible to detect irregularities or changes in satellite images. But there is a need for a lot of other data about, for example, temperature and precipitation. Only then could an algorithm warn of certain areas of risk.

2. Prediction of forest fires with sensors on trees

Closer to Earth, the German company Dryad Networks has developed a system that can detect forest fires at an early stage. The system consists of a network of small sensors that work on solar energy. These hang in trees and measure temperature, humidity and air pressure. Detection of an incipient forest fire can be done with a special chip with a gas sensor. It can give a warning in less than an hour, even if only a smoldering fire remains.

Current camera and satellite-based warning systems can take a long time to detect a fire. This sometimes takes several hours or even days. Dryad Networks’ sensors can use artificial intelligence (AI) to distinguish wildfires from other heat sources, such as diesel cars.

3. Tracking with a drone

You can also use drones for early detection of wildfires. For example, the long-range drone Avy Aera. Together with Veluw’s Bosbrandweer Comité (VBC), Avy is investigating the use of drones for the early detection of wildfires. Finding such fires using artificial intelligence is new in the Netherlands. In addition, the camera images are made available in real time. This has also never been seen before in the Netherlands.

Until now, planes have been used to monitor nature reserves against fires in the Netherlands. This project investigates whether the use of drones can be an alternative in the Hoge Veluwe National Park. Drones are expected to advance in terms of speed, the size of the area to be monitored, and imaging in the control room.

4. Better extinguishing

If prevention has not been successful, extinguishing must of course take place as soon as possible. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) held a competition in October 2022 to design the firefighting aircraft of the future. First place went to the team from the University of Stuttgart with the INFERNO (Intelligent Fire RespoNse Operation) design.

The aircraft is a so-called combination helicopter. With eight horizontal rotors, it can take off and land vertically. The drive works with a hybrid electric system, where a gas turbine supports a rechargeable battery and the electric motors. INFERNO can take in water while skimming low over the water, hover vertically over a lake and suck water into its tank, or simply take in water at an airport. This unit can therefore also take water into small bodies of water, where this is impossible for the current firefighting aircraft.

5. Change in weather

The last method seems the most futuristic and also the most uncertain, but the idea is simple: just make it rain! There has been a lot of research into manipulating clouds to try and make it rain. This even succeeded, albeit under special circumstances. Silver iodide, salt or frozen CO2 causes a series of large droplets to form around condensation nuclei in a cloud. They collide with smaller droplets, and that collision is crucial to getting rain or snow.

The best results were obtained when clouds were injected from the sky by an airplane. However, it is cheaper and easier to infect clouds from the ground with smoke pots. In addition, the weather conditions must be good: the wind direction must come from a certain angle and not be too strong or too slow; the air temperature should not be warmer than -8 degrees Celsius; and the air must be moist enough. Only then does the necessary process of precipitation begin.

However, there is no evidence that the technique can also be used in flat areas, such as the Netherlands. The technology also has limitations. Silver iodide and salt are harmful when released into the environment in large quantities. In short, we shouldn’t have too high expectations for that.

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