Sunday, January 3, 2010

How Kids Could Have Prevented the California Wildfires

As the California wildfires ravaged the Golden State, inhabitants of America’s west coast saw their property engulfed and homes annihilated, while also suffering hundreds of casualties. Just last August, two firefighters died after their vehicle was overrun by flames north of Los Angeles. Yet in the scorched and blackened aftermath of the forest fires, the startling truth is that all this damage, loss and destruction could have been prevented by a group of kids.
The key to combating wildfires ripping through bone dry forests and bringing about untold harm is detection. Where there’s smoke there’s fire is a saying that trips easily off the tongue, but with wildfires the tough reality is that the smoke itself is often out of sight. Detecting these potentially deadly blazes while they are still smouldering can help stop them reaching catastrophic proportions.
It was this basic principle of detection that got a team of young people in California thinking about how to reduce the soaring numbers of wildfires that have become an issue not just in their neck of the woods but around the globe – especially given the massive amount of CO2 that gets released into the air. In an age of web cams and camera phones, it’s perhaps small wonder that the answer was surveillance.
Named the FIRST Lego League Forest Guards, the youngsters, in partnership with Sony Europe, came up with the concept of an early wildfire detection system. The idea was to identify large forest fires more quickly using a network of solar powered CCTV cameras mounted on poles, linked to citizen fire watchers over the web, to offer a picture of the warning signs of wildfires before they manage to spread.
for the idea is already underway at the Forestry Commission’s site at Alice Holt, Surrey, UK and near the children’s home at Tahoe, California. The kids have first-hand experience of being evacuated from their homes because of wildfires, so were well placed to see the need for a fast and effective system of detection, where more eyes keeping watch would be better equipped to foresee future infernos.
For their efforts, the fresh-faced Forest Guards won an International Children’s Climate Call competition in Copenhagen earlier this year organised by LEGO and FIRST, a non-profit organisation that inspires students in science. Since then, their idea has since been realised by Sony Europe, with the upshot that the prototype – complete with R2D2-esque camera domes – is now being developed and tested.
Although there is an interest in using satellite technology as well as other digital imaging technology to detect fires, none of it is generally used. This new idea is also the first to include solar-powered CCTV cameras dispersed throughout the forest that allow the pictures of this environment to be broadcast over the Internet and from there be downloaded by anyone in the form of a website or screensaver.
Morgan David, Director of Research and Development for Sony Europe, who led the development team, explained some of the difficulties involved: “With image analysis, the smoke is difficult to differentiate from steam or clouds. But as a result of a lot of long hours put in, we have a pragmatic solution. And the real magic is the hundreds of thousands of eyes out there on the Net attracted by nice imagery.”
Yet it was more than just a case of visualising wildfires over the web. Working with the forestry people in Tahoe, the kids gained an understanding of how important it is to see not just in certain places but many – hence the idea of a network. And Sony Europe has further combined the network and camera technology with imaging software written by them. “Innovation isn’t easy,” concedes David. But it is possible.
The technology was presented at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last week, with the princes of Sweden and Denmark among those who dropped by the Forest Guard stand. If such interest is maintained, the wildfire detection system will let fire fighters know immediately when a wildfire is breaking out in their area – and so prevent future wildfires in California and elsewhere in the world.

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