UC Berkeley astrophysicist, scientist receive $1.5M grant to fund efforts in infrared fire detection

Photo of wildfire
NPS Climate Change Response/Creative Commons
Campus researchers received a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to aid their attempt to improve infrared fire detectors. ( NPS Climate Change Response under CC0 1.0.)

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The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation gave a $1.5 million grant to UC Berkeley astrophysicist Carl Pennypacker and Tim Ball, president of Fireball Information Technologies, LLC, funding their efforts to improve infrared fire detectors.

Through their collaboration, they will optimize existing infrared detection satellite systems and build a multispectral camera system aboard spotter planes to help prevent widespread fires. Between fuel buildup from insufficient timber cleanups and drier climates, fires are increasing in size, according to Ball.

He is working with Pennypacker, whose satellite system — Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit — will use real-time data to detect fires within their first five minutes of origin through ground-based fire tower camera systems, Ball noted.

Ball added that he and Pennypacker plan to combine satellite, aircraft and on-ground camera footage to configure detailed descriptions of active fires, including their size, rate and direction.

“The system I built is probably the best tool there is to allow those kinds of measurements to be taken,” Ball said. “They can be processed onboard the aircraft and sent to the people on the ground.”

Cal Fire largely relies on maps taken from the U.S. Forest Service planes. These planes are flown once daily and only at night as standard detectors are unable to translate the dynamic range of infrared radiation required to detail active fires, a Berkeley News article noted.

Ball said they would be able to provide such maps every 10 minutes.

The satellites, which are 23,000 miles above ground, would send images to the ground systems, which cross-reference using color cameras. A plane can then be sent to configure the characteristics of the fire. A full camera system can collect 2.4 million images and detect about 100 fires a day, Ball noted.

“Many fire departments use color cameras as a fire confirmation tool,” Ball said. “We add value to that camera system by analyzing the systems as they come in.”

Currently, weather satellites are not optimized for detailed fire spotting as they lack the spatial and temporal resolution, Ball said. They can detect fires that are 2 to 3 acres wide in brush and woodlands and 8 to 10 acres in grasslands.

The new satellite would be able to detect the infrared flux of a fire “the size of a semi-trailer.” Such a fire, on screen, would take up a pixel, according to Pennypacker.

Within four years, Ball and Pennypacker plan to launch the satellite for 24/7 fire surveillance in the western United States and in other fire-prone areas around the world, Pennypacker added.

“The challenges are terrible,” Pennypacker said. “The opportunities to fix things have never been greater. It’s time for all good people to get going on this.”

Contact Lauren Huang at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @Laurenhuang72.