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  • Ben Jones

Fighting Wildfires with Long-Range, Low-Power Technologies

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

wildfire burning

This article first appeared on EEWeb. Thanks to Marc Pegulu for the write-up.

In November 2018, a wildfire burned for 17 days, killing 85 people and destroying nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings in the town of Paradise, California, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Three years later, entire blocks of land in Paradise remain empty lots surrounded by charred trees and dry ground.

According to a report from CAL FIRE, the wildfire was the result of faulty electrical transmission lines initially sparked by a badly maintained steel hook holding up a high voltage line. On average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago. Paradise is just one of many examples of towns, cities and municipalities that have been destructed by wildfires.

Wild Fires Create Wildfires

Since the beginning of time, wildfires have burned forests and fields, destroying everything from animal and plant life to buildings and homes. While fires can be beneficial, as we push urban growth boundaries and suppress wildfires, they only increase in size and severity. In 2021, the US experienced record-breaking highs for droughts and heatwaves, much of which fuelled wildfires across the country.

In addition to loss of property, wildlife, and human lives, wildfires contribute significantly to climate change. The average wildfire emits between 5 to 30 tons of carbon per 2.5 acres – approximately the size of two football fields side by side.

Add other impacts of wildfires into the mix like erosion and flooding, and that leads to added challenges including the reliability of energy and utility companies whom individuals rely on daily and the health and safety of citizens.

The Challenges of Detecting Wildfires

Detecting fires in their early stages can reduce reaction time and the magnitude of potential damage from a wildfire. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

From flash to ash, the smallest fires can become a wildfire. Since wildfires are dependent on different factors such as an initiating agent, the surrounding environment, and efforts used to extinguish the fire, their lifecycles often vary. And like many wildfires in rural areas, the lifecycle can be exacerbated by thick vegetation, overgrown forests, and debris.

With so many factors contributing to what makes a wildfire, and considering that 90 percent of wildfires are man-made, it’s extremely difficult to predict when and where they will pop up, making early detection that much more important.

Fighting Wildfires with LoRa® and IoT-enabled sensors

Now, the Internet of Things (IoT) -enabled sensors can help detect and alert the appropriate agencies to help prevent wildfires before they even happen. IoT has emerged as a prominent tool across industries like healthcare, transportation, industrial, retail, and more, helping connect devices and applications to streamline processes that help large groups of people. With long range, low power technologies brought on by LoRa, NB-IoT, and Wi-Fi, IoT-enabled devices are able to operate at extended ranges and communicate with devices at a lower rate.

Historically, traditional fire monitoring systems used satellite imaging, ground-based cameras and watchtowers to monitor an area for smoke or flames. But with tinder dry landscapes, wildfires spread so quickly that detecting them once they’ve just begun is already too late.

Energy and utility companies, fire departments, and even entire towns are able to deploy IoT-enabled sensors in remote or hard-to-reach areas to collect data that may alert them to a potential wildfire. Long range, low power sensors—operating on the LoRaWAN® standard—let users collect environmental data from the most wooded, secluded or remote areas. With IoT solutions in place, operators can remotely measure and detect issues before they become a crisis. The LoRaWAN standard is ideal for this implementation because connectivity is always on and always ready to alert authorities of changes in temperature, humidity, air pressure, winds and more.

The low power nature of sensors leveraging LoRa allow the battery-operated IoT devices to connect wirelessly to standard gateways utilizing LoRaWAN and remain in the environment for up to 15 years without maintenance.

graphic showing how Dryad's mesh networks works

Putting it into Practice: Early Wildfire Detection by Dryad

Dryad Networks, an environmental IoT startup based in Berlin has a mission to fight wildfires and mitigate their impact on climate change. You might wonder why a startup in Germany is focused on wildfires.

But wildfires are increasing in the German forests and woodlands, just like they are in the US. In fact, in 2019, Germany experienced its largest recorded forest fire. And going back to 2018, there were 1,718 forest fires—four times as many as previous years.

Dryad partnered with Semtech and Swarm, a global satellite communications network developer, to create a system for ultra-early detection of wildfires. The company’s solar-powered sensing system, SIlvanet, uses AI to detect abnormal patterns of gas in the air. To connect the IoT system, Silvanet provides a long range, low power wireless network that has been extended with a patent-pending mesh network architecture to cover large areas of the forest. With built-in support for satellite radio connectivity from Swarm, Dryad receives data from remote areas in real-time to enable faster response. Swarm’s network of 120 satellites cover every point on Earth, enabling data transmission from anywhere, even if there is no mobile coverage.

Silvanet is a wildfire detection system comprised of three main components:

  1. The Silvanet Mesh Gateway extends the Silvanet Network to large deployments beyond the reach of the standard direct connection between sensors and gateways in standard LoRaWAN networks. The architecture uses a multihop mesh network of gateways interconnected with Semtech’s LoRa devices. Each serves as a standard network gateway utilizing LoRaWAN to Silvanet Wildfire Sensors and third party sensors. The Mesh Gateways are placed in the forest, forming a mesh network with a typical distance of roughly 1.2 – 3.7 miles (2-6 km), depending on topology and physical placement of the Gateways.

  2. The Silvanet Border Gateway is placed at the border of the target forest area, typically in a house or near a village. The Border Gateway communicates with the Silvanet Cloud Platform and relays messages from the wildfire sensors. The built-in LTE radio provides wireless connectivity or uses the built-in Ethernet adapter via a wired Internet. For remote deployments where there is no mobile network coverage and no access to power, the Silvanet Border Gateway has built-in support for satellite uplink using the Swarm satellite network. It operates via electricity or can be powered by a solar cell.

  3. The Silvanet Wildfire Sensor is designed to detect forest fires during the early stages and to monitor the microclimate, measuring temperature, humidity and air pressure. The sensor combines ultra-low-power air quality sensing with a precise gas sensing mode. It detects hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other gases at the parts per million (ppm) level using on-board AI to detect fire and avoid false positives. The sensor uses LoRaWAN connectivity for wireless data transmission and can run maintenance-free for 10-15 years.

Dryad launched its first network in a forest near Berlin and has ten other proof of concept deployments in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Indonesia and Africa. Its sensors are able to detect a new fire within 30 to 60 minutes, depending on sensor placement.

When it comes to wildfires, time is of the essence. Early detection can not only save lives of residents and alert them to provide adequate evacuation but reduces many costs associated with fighting fires and the resources used to do so.

IoT-enabled Sensors for Environmental Good

Individuals can harness the power of IoT to not only to prevent destruction caused by wildfires but for environmental good. In fact, Silvanet is not limited to wildfire detection. Because it’s built on the open LoRaWAN standard, the solar-powered large-scale mesh network can connect many third party sensors using LoRaWAN and the Silvanet Mesh network to relay sensor data to the Cloud.

Environmental data sensors measuring soil moisture, ozone concentration, tree growth, and sap flow can be measured to provide key data on health and growth monitoring of trees, supporting the forestry industry.

Like nearly all industries, forestry could largely benefit from the digitization of its tools and operations. Previously, the industry was behind due to lack of network coverage. Now, with Silvanet, Semtech and Swarm leading the charge, network coverage is available in even the most remote areas of forests around the world.

Combatting Climate Change with IoT

Climate change, both man-made and natural, is rapidly disrupting weather patterns and altering the balance of nature. Changes in temperature create conditions that influence wildfires and cause change in rainfall patterns, leading to severe and frequent storms that cause flooding, landslides and destruction to communities.

Combating the effects of climate change, including the growth of wildfires, is extremely important to protecting our planet. IoT technologies can help slow future destruction with easy to deploy and operate smart solutions that protect our environment.

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