Every year, thousands of first responders are deployed to fires all over the world with little or no precise location knowledge of the fire. Fighting fires can become a guessing game as well as a perilous race against time. This approach is expensive, lacks efficiency and most importantly, is dangerous for first responders. Aerial imaging sensors with custom artificial intelligence and real-time fire mapping are modernizing wildfire management.
June 23, 2019
As lightning struck the Mendocino National Forest 37 kilometers northeast of Covelo,CA, a fire emerged and the USFS began closely monitoring the situation. Several days of surveillance grew into a request for aerial mapping. With primary assets down for maintenance, the USFS called on Courtney Aviation, a California company specializing in aerial fire attack. For the first time, a contracted aviation company would deploy the Overwatch Imaging TK-5 EARTHWATCH digital imaging sensor on a wildfire. This new technology has programmable artificial intelligence (AI) that provides the flight crew real-time early detection of wildfire hotspots and wildfire perimeter mapping. It uses color, near-infrared and sensitive thermal infrared imaging sensors, so it can be used day or night. The TK-5 EARTHWATCH vividly displays the fire for the pilot to adjust course real-time if the fire has moved to unexpected locations.
“We were able to fly over a 186 hectare area at 7:45 pm PST, collect data, map it and disseminate the information via cellular connection to firefighters on the ground by 8:21 pm PST.” Said Mark Zaller, CTO and Air Attack Pilot of Courtney Aviation.
By the end of the summer, Overwatch Imaging EARTHWATCH sensors were in daily use in the American west, and preparing to support operations in Australia.
IR Sensors and the USFS
Thermal IR sensors are sophisticated electro-optical instruments that display information from a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot perceive without instruments. Within the visible spectrum, an observer cannot tell whether an object is hot or cool unless it is glowing or ablaze. Additionally, smoke is a significant problem in visually managing a fire. Thermal IR sensors detect thermal energy and produce a “picture” of the thermal energy content of a scene. They can do this through smoke, from high altitudes and at a large scale.
The USFS has been using infrared technology for over fifty years. From 1962 to 1976, infrared research was successfully conducted by project FIRESCAN at the intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. Remarkably, during this period, the basic theory of fire mapping and detection with thermal IR systems was developed. In 1966, the first IR airborne line scanning system was used in real fire operations. By 1991, 25 years into IR research, the USFS line scanning systems were able to scan over 400 hectares per hour. As technology advanced, the use of GPS and digital signal processing was introduced to airborne line scanners, greatly increasing their accuracy and efficiency.
Today, while the basic tenets still apply, technological leaps forward in optics, camera stabilization and image processing have positively affected the capabilities of IR Sensors. It is now feasible to scan 2,000 hectares in an hour. Artificial Intelligence allows the sensors to spot fires and create perimeter maps onboard the aircraft. Fire mapping information can be disseminated to chiefs in command centers and firefighters on the ground in minutes rather than hours.
Early detection and shared situational awareness are paramount to successful management of wildfires. Real-time data from digital imaging sensors provide the strategic, big-picture view to make intelligent decisions about people and resources. For example, where to send smokejumpers, when to declare an evacuation or when and where to move resources. These are the everyday life-or-death decisions when fighting forest fires. In addition to the human impact, with accurate data, it is safer for fires to run their course, which leads to healthier forests and less uncontrolled wildfires. These benefits increase the efficiency of today’s firefighting model.
Courtney Aviation’s Mark Zaller explains how the Overwatch Imaging TK-5 EARTHWATCH has impacted his company’s fire-mapping capabilities:
“The Overwatch TK-5 three-camera system includes technology not previously available. Color(RGB), Near Infrared(NIR) and Thermal Long Wave Infrared (LWIR) cameras were built into one module that was gyro-stabilized for both level and forward motion compensation. This allowed us to fly faster, lower and in bumpier conditions. The set of three cameras also stepped sideways, stopping momentarily, to take photos 5 across, perpendicular to the direction of flight. The five right-to-left photo sequence is then mosaiced together automatically into one photo. This process is known as orthomosaic generation. Step-stare stabilization made for a wider swath, or Field of View (FOV), meaning higher accuracy and wider flight lines. This resulted in faster data delivery of high-quality maps while reducing flight costs.
On the Overwatch user-interface in the cockpit, the ground morphology painted below us live. We could see the imagery become automatically geo-referenced as we flew. Fire stood out distinctively red against the black and white imagery. We immediately knew where the fire had moved and where to fly in order to create a complete map.
In addition to displaying and recording the fire, Artificial Intelligence algorithms on the TK-5 EARTHWATCH automatically created vector-based fire polygons. These system-generated ESRI SHP and Google Earth KMLs could be opened immediately to build an entire fire map while still flying! 14 bit raw imagery is stored for later reprocessing if different thresholds are desired or for analyzing excessive plasma and fire blooms.
Faster and more accurate maps are now being delivered thanks to Overwatch Imaging’s TK-5 EARTHWATCH. Because of the compact size and cost-effectiveness, Overwatch systems can be fit onto many aircraft big and small, and even drones, thus allowing IC teams to receive fresher data more often for less cost.”
How has Overwatch Imaging’s EARTHWATCH technology impacted the 2019 Fire Season in the US?
In July, the USFS awarded five fire-fighting contracts for the emerging fire season. The majority of the contracted aerial fire-fighting companies had aircraft equipped with an Overwatch Imaging EARTHWATCH payload. Tenax Aerospace flew a Beechcraft King Air 350 with Overwatch Imaging’s larger payload, the TK-9 EARTHWATCH. The TK-9 EARTHWATCH is equipped with seven spectral bands – Color plus 4 infrared bands (NIR, SWIR(short wave infrared), MWIR(medium wave infrared) and LWIR). It can detect a 15cm hot spot from 5500 meters traveling at 220 knots. Depending on altitude, the swath-width for the TK-9 EARTHWATCH ranges from 3 to 8 kilometers. Mapping coverage ranges from 93,000 hectares to 200,000 hectares per hour.
During a three-week period this summer in the Pacific Northwest, Tenax Aerospace flew over twenty wildfires. They gathered imagery multiple days in a row for many of the higher priority fires and assisted fire fighters on the ground by providing up-to-date federally standardized deliverables such as GeoPDF fire maps, GIS-ready fire polygons and Google Earth KML files as the data was captured. The maps displayed changes in the fire perimeter, locating areas of intense and scattered heat. This helped to find isolated heat sources away from the fire line and assisted in the mop-up phase and eventual burnout.
During day-time flights, the TK-9 EARTHWATCH was used to locate areas of healthy and at-risk vegetation with NDVI. Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) quantifies vegetation by measuring the difference between near-infrared (which vegetation strongly reflects) and red light (which vegetation absorbs). This is helpful to analysts and infrared interpreters when searching for areas that have burned but are no longer hot. It is also used during droughts since the expected reflectance values are commonly known in forests, croplands and other areas where the health of vegetation is a concern.
The majority of Tenax Aerospace aerial fire mapping flights were performed in the late evening. Night-time missions are preferred for IR fire perimeter mapping because at night, reflected solar energy and energy radiated from hot rocks dissipates. All the energy received in the thermal IR bands is radiated energy, giving a true indication of temperature levels. The real-time onboard image processing of the TK-9 EARTHWATCH provided:
- 3 infrared bands of nighttime imagery intelligence
- Automatic detection and alert of small fires,
- Near real-time generation of fire map shape files
- Wide-area image mosaic generation
By the end of the assignment, Tenax Aerospace had flown over 220,000 hectares of fire and successfully created 50 GeoPDF maps for the USFS.
As the 2019 fire season in the US began winding down, word was spreading about the success of the TK-9 EARTHWATCH in supporting the USFS Fire mapping missions. The Australian state government in New South Wales was in the midst of a $26.3 million investment to enhance the aerial firefighting capacity in eastern Australia. After reviewing the data from the summer’s USFS fire detection and mapping, the Australian government elected to order two TK-9 EARTHWATCH digital imaging sensors to accompany the two Coulson Cessna Citation V’s as their lead intelligence aircraft.
“Successful fire management has a lot of moving parts, and the safest and most efficient outcomes occur when decision-makers have the best information at the right time. I am excited that Overwatch Imaging is contributing to redefining the standard for providing data collection, mapping and redistribution to first responders,” said Greg Davis, Founder and CEO of Overwatch Imaging.
Other industries taking advantage of this new technology
The possibilities with the Overwatch Imaging system are just beginning to take shape. The system has been used successfully by NOAA in the US for flood monitoring and river forecasting. In Africa, it is working as an anti-poaching surveillance tool. There is a maritime version used for search and rescue in Europe and a linear infrastructure version for pipeline surveillance in the middle east. These are just a few of the industries capitalizing on this new technology.
Overwatch Imaging is working at the convergence of aerospace, computer vision, autonomy and artificial intelligence. Based in Hood River, Oregon, Overwatch Imaging designs and manufactures airborne imaging systems with custom onboard AI software for both piloted and unmanned aircraft. They are pioneers in a new technology for firefighting that improves efficiency, reduces costs, enhances safety and promotes healthy forestry management.
For more information, go to www.overwatchimaging.com