Fighting Fire With Sound: Moonshot Material
Using An Autonomous Drone-Plane Network to Contain Wildfires
By Valkyrie Holmes
“It looks like the apocalypse.”
“It feels like it’s the end of the world.”
“Good morning, Hell.”
This picture was taken on September 1st, 2020. It showcases the orange-covered sky, clouds filled ablaze with ash, and the darkness that encircled California in one of the most devastating years for wildfire prevention since the early 2000s.
Imagine waking up to find your whole world has gone up in flames. You’ve been relocated to another city, your home and belongings are destroyed, and you’ve been separated from your family in a mad frenzy to evacuate your loved ones. My teammate Jesse lives in Northern Canada where the summers get dry and wildfires spring up every year, each one getting worse and worse. Her father works for RCMP, meaning he has to risk his life to manage these fires instead of being back home with his family.
This devastating period is felt by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, especially in California, Australia, and the Amazon, and impacts not only human beings but animals and plants that create diversity within our ecosystem. These factors allow us to live to our full potential and we’ve been putting wildfire prevention to the side for too long. There are dire consequences surrounding these fires and we have the capability to change how we fight them. So let’s start now.
Modern Techniques are Inefficient
In 2020, over 10.3 million acres of land were burned in the US but we can’t just talk about the acreage. Let’s put that into context. In those 10.3 million acres, 4.5 million homes were in the red and the United States spent upwards of 13 billion dollars. That’s not even taking into account the almost 100 million acres of land burned in Australia, Siberia, and the Amazon in 2020 alone. Considering the fact that 90% of all wildfires are due to human activity, these are insane numbers to be pulling, especially in times of a worldwide pandemic.
Victoria Christiansen gave a speech at the Fire Continuum Conference in 2018 outlining where the Wildlife Fire Department could improve and needless to say, we have a long way to go. In the past fifty years, the way humans fight fires hasn’t changed at all, akin to how most classrooms haven’t changed their teaching styles. Wildfires have grown in frequency, size, and severity and in 2017, there were “12 fires that burned more than 100,000 acres of land EACH and an additional 39 fires that burned more than 40,000 acres”, constituting them as mega-fires.
“Each year, US taxpayers lose $20 to $100 BILLION dollars in wildfire-related damages to infrastructure, public health, and natural resources”, says Christiansen.
While new programs have been rolled out in training and several advances in fighting equipment, fires are still growing at an exponential rate and making it harder to advance and save lives. “We’re using decades-old tools and strategies to fight fires that are a lot different than they were 30 or 40 years ago,” said Edward Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfires Will Shape Our Future. Agencies like the Forest Service are “so frenzied dealing with so many fires burning almost year-round now that it has to be up to Congress to pull together resources for this” and so far, the budget for fires hasn’t even increased by 100k from 2018 to 2021 when the damage cost has skyrocketed from 7 to 13 billion dollars.
Climate Change Increases Risk
This increase in intensity is due to the fact that climate change has caused temperatures in the US to spike dramatically since the 1980s, with more than half of the increase of fires in California being attributed to this environmental phenomenon. Record-breaking heat events have increased by 80% worldwide and with earlier temperature rises, fires burn earlier, hotter, and brighter than ever before.
Imagine an emergency wildfire scenario. A fire fighting team has to locate the fire and map out the surrounding area and everything at risk. They have to initiate evacuation protocol to get everyone to safety and depending on how fast the fire moves, properties are incredibly likely to be damaged by the time everyone is safe. Those on the front lines then have to go into the fire, with smoke and dangerous toxins in their lungs, using hoses, pumps, and fire extinguishers to try to keep them at bay. On top of that, those at the station need to arrange tankers to throw retardant on the flames, move sick or injured people around, maintain equipment and deploy more materials; all the while fighting fires that they’re not fit to handle on the ground level.
Climate change is creating massive risk for men on the ground and that’s not even all that they do; all that could be manned by ONE fire station in the case of a medium-sized wildfire. No wonder we have such trouble putting them out!
Prevention is Not Taken Seriously
There’s another part of the problem that we’ve been neglecting — money management. These wildfires are managed by the Office of Wildland Fire, which is split into many different sectors consisting of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and much more. Each one dedicates a certain amount of resources to local fire stations and relief programs, especially during fire seasons. What’s interesting about these organizations, however, is the way they handle their economic situation.
All of these sections and more share a centralized budget that accounts for preparedness, suppression of fires, fuel management (for both fire stations and rescue scenarios), burned area rehabilitation, and scientific research. In the past five years, the average amount requested for these aspects has been around 1 billion dollars, which would be a lot if the US wasn’t spending over 13 billion in damages every year. The problem is that when a fire burns through more property and causes more damage than originally intended, the shared pot of money gets unevenly distributed.
Those who are working to prevent future fires have their costs cut when more is needed to keep existing fires down and that lack of innovation results in an endless cycle of debt that continues to lessen the ability of scientists to come up with better solutions. So the money put towards the programs promoting prevention is ultimately seen as not as important as the money put towards reaction.
We are literally fighting fire with fire.
Organizations Only Focus on Reaction
Some top organizations currently fighting the most fire are the California Fire Foundation, the Red Cross, and Direct Relief, all getting funding from government programs and in collaboration with the Office of Wildland Fire.
- The California Fire Foundation puts emphasis on emergency shelters, temporary housing, food, clothing, medical care, and transportation but there is not a single visible sector that is dedicated to lessening the impact of fire on displaced people and future damages (only towards treating people after the fact).
- The Red Cross states on their website that they have recovery plans in action that money goes towards but also doesn’t have these plans linked or have their distribution of resources listed, meaning we can’t fully understand how much of that goes towards any kind of research into faster recovery or how much goes into the reaction aspect of fire (again, no prevention programs).
- Direct Relief is a big organization that focuses on disaster situations and while 72% of their 2 billion dollar budget went towards natural disasters like hurricanes and fires, 91% of that funding was from in-kind products (physical donations and services), meaning it was more used for physical products and not innovation.
All of these organizations get a majority of their funding from FEMA grants, AIM grants, funds from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the US Forest Service, all government-based programs. What’s more intriguing is the fact that many individual companies like FedEx and Google also donate but notice how Fed Ex is the service they use for transporting supplies and they use Google for online advertising to gather more funding? A majority of the organizations donating money to these causes have a stake in the economic aspect of fire fighting and more specifically, the reaction aspect which DOES NOT contribute to preventing fires.
Now, this isn’t to say that any of these organizations are bad; in fact, they’ve helped over 500,000 people in the last year and they are responsible for a lot of relocation and treatment services for those in these situations, both needed during the fire season. The problem lies at the core: why put so much money towards reacting when we could develop a better way to deal with fires? That way, more money would be spent on new technology and saving properties instead of trying to fix these things after the fact. The world is moving so fast in terms of growth and finding new tools to deal with modern-day problems and this is an amazing opportunity to both save money and lives without sacrificing any efficiency.
There is an insane climate loop occurring in our world today, with warming causing more fires and more fires causing more warming. What could we possibly do to combat this? Here’s where our solution comes into play.
We propose an autonomous network of planes and drones used to fight fires, with drones being used for detection and containment and planes for extinguishing. The drones would use something called a vortex ring to counteract the further combustion in burning areas along with using infrared to find fires that have started in the wilderness. The planes would be able to put out the fire using modern techniques and ultimately, keep the fire from spreading to insurmountable areas.
Once put in place, this system has revolutionary impacts on the future of firefighting. On a fully autonomous system, tankers could deliver up to 800 gallons of water directly to the source, giving firefighters, operations managers, and public safety coordinators on the ground the upper hand.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of fire tech is the fact that autonomous planes can fly at night. “Currently, only manned air tankers are used in airborne firefighting operations and they are restricted from fighting fires during night hours,” says Mike Richards, president, and CEO of Drone America. It is this “dark window” that drones and planes can take full advantage of, especially with cooler night temperatures and reduced fire activity. In the past 10 years, there has been an average of 62,693 wildfires annually and 7.5 million acres burned each year. With an autonomous system that can fly in the night, that already decreases the acres burned by around 40% on average.
Autonomous drone systems have been used in neighboring countries for decades. A team in Liverpool has been using a fully autonomous system to track endangered species in the wild. Abundant Robotics has discovered a human-free program that can pick produce off of trees. Sunflower Labs has been working on a drone system that scans for suspicious activity outside one’s home. The space for autonomous drone usage is growing exponentially and they’ve been shown to increase efficiency and safety of both the average person’s life and safety conditions of service jobs.
Drones have already been used in firefighting to identify hotspots, plan strategy, monitor wind, and get a birds’ eye view of the terrain. Different types of drones can even climb 984 feet in six minutes, exceeding the reach of normal ladders and the speed at which a human can reach. They can be closer in proximity to fire (98 feet), extend through in-air recharging, and so much more.
This doesn’t come without some barriers, though.
Since autonomous drone interfaces are relatively new, there still needs to be a multitude of studies dedicated to validating the AI mechanisms used to drive these systems. ARSAC drones also use petroleum, as it is the only fuel source that can be used to produce the needed energy to power the system. In a perfect world, the drones would run on solar energy but there is a possibility of switching to a solid-state battery in the future.
The environment also has to be studied before releasing drones into the wild. The technology used to contain fires operates differently in accordance with temperature, elevation, air density, and more. While there is currently a system in place to survey the surrounding air quality, it still needs to be tested in uncontrolled areas.
There’s also the problem of the law. As of right now, there are several regulations put in place with regards to drones sharing airspace with planes and we have yet to even budge these acts. It takes time, but exceptions would have to be made in disaster situations for this solution to be viable. You can view more of the technicalities of these challenges here.
A study was done by Goldman Sachs that even found that an estimated 881 million dollars could be spent on drones to fight fires globally, showing that there is more than enough capital to sustain this program.
Primary customers include government agencies and private organizations that oversee large land areas (i.e. national parks) and therefore have a greater ability to address large wildfires than individual consumers. A survey done by MDPI also showed that the majority of professionals having worked in prevention, surveillance, and detection of forest fires believe that a combination of cameras, autonomous technology, drones, and mobile devices are the way to go in disaster-fire situations.
ARSAC currently has around 1 million dollars a year dedicated to the project, planning to unveil a new system of wildfire fighting drones in 2–5 years. They are also partnered with the X-Prize on a separate project, which is helping to fund fighting wildfires. After the initial research phase on outdoor systems is complete, the company will also be eligible for multiple government grants like SBIR. With autonomous technology, the new and improved drones could push the boundary of what is currently possible in fire-fighting technology and significantly reduce the loss of life, property, and essential workers as well as materials and other damages.
Needless to say, the future is bright, and it won’t be fire lighting the way. It will be this incredible technology and team that carries it through the woods and into the sky.
While the technology will take time to test and run in uncontrolled environments, the potential is huge and we can’t wait to embark on the next steps. We’ve created a website detailing our roll-out plan, video demonstrations, diagrams, and contacts for next steps. You can view all that and more here.
As Suchinder P Dhillon, CEO of ARSAC Technologies said,
“It is a moral crime not to develop a system to address the issue. We really just want to do the right thing.”
And that’s exactly what we’ll do.
Special Thanks to Jesse Pound, Soliana Fikru, and Taiho H for aiding in my findings, creating stellar videos, and collaborating with me on this monumental project — you’re the best and we’re gonna do big things one day.
If you have any questions or would like to get in contact with any of the team, email me at email@example.com.