UC Berkeley scientists develop framework for fire-detecting satellite

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UC Berkeley researchers have developed an initial framework for a satellite that could one day help locate emerging fires and monitor “hot spots” in some of the most fire-prone areas of the western United States.

The satellite, dubbed the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, or FUEGO, will use multispectral sensing, false-alarm-rejection algorithms and other new technologies to assess the intensity and rate of growth of all fires in its view. It relies on remote sensing technology, in which aerial sensors are launched into Earth’s orbit to produce images of the planet’s surface.

The team of researchers — composed of UC Berkeley scientists Maggi Kelly, Carl Pennypacker, Scott Stephens, Robert Tripp and Michael Lampton; graduate student Marek Jakubowski; and Christopher Schmidt of the University of Wisconsin at Madison — published its findings in the online journal Remote Sensing on Oct. 17.

Kelly, a professor of environmental science, policy and management, said that the satellite, if constructed, has the potential to become an important firefighting asset.

“Today, the computers we could deploy are faster, detectors are cheaper and more sensitive, and analysis software is more advanced, making this kind of concept a possibility,” Kelly said in an email. “We want to start a discussion about what it would take to create such an instrument.”

Although the satellite is estimated to cost about $100 million, according to Kelly, that would be a small fraction of the $2.5 billion the United States spends on fighting fires each year. The FUEGO satellite has not yet been constructed, but the researchers hope to spark further discussion about its development.

“If we could catch fires earlier, we could spend less on containing them, we could be more effective with evacuations and fewer structures and forests would be lost to catastrophic fires,” Kelly said.

According to Kelly, Stephens refers to California as a “pyro-state” because of its abundance of inflammable ecosystems, such as the forests of the Sierra Nevada foothills and the mountains and chaparral hillsides of southern California. In addition to the ecosystems they damage, fires in these areas threaten people who live nearby. Pennypacker expects more frequent fires in California due to global warming.

The next step is to collect more data and investigate what needs to happen to build and launch such a satellite, Pennypacker said.

The designs for the FUEGO satellite currently only apply to its monitoring of the western United States. Pennypacker, however, said he foresees the possibility of extending the technology to other regions and countries as a “gift of peace from the United States to the rest of the world” that could help eliminate much of the global misery resulting from fires.

Contact Adrianna Dinolfo at [email protected].