Breakthrough Technology Could Pinpoint Forest Fires

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Breakthrough Technology Could Pinpoint Forest Fires

New fire-fighting technology could give the U.S. Forest Service a way to detect and monitor forest fires as they start. A breakthrough "sensing" process can pinpoint burning vegetation from the sky, via remote sensors attached to a satellite or an airplane.

The breakthrough was reported in the July issue of The International Journal of Remote Sensing in a paper by Anthony Vodacek, assistant professor of imaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, and co-author Don Latham from the Fire Sciences Laboratory, part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, located in Missoula, Mont.

Their findings would improve the remote search for fire and could eliminate false alarms. This is because the new method detects actual flames, whereas thermal infrared sensors detect hot spots without discrimination.

Sun glare also can trigger false readings.

"A lot of false alarms come from sunlight reflecting off water and clouds," Vodacek says. "That can fool the thermal infrared sensors. It would not fool our sensor."

The key to Vodacek’s system is potassium, an omnipresent nutrient in soils found in the tissues of plants. His research shows for the first time that potassium emission can be used to detect forest fires. Using Vodacek’s method in tandem with other techniques may help scientists separate smoldering from flaming vegetation.

Vodacek’s method would be an inexpensive complement or alternative to the one now used for fire monitoring. Existing technology could be modified to detect potassium emission. Sensors of this design could be deployed in space for real-time global fire monitoring or on an aircraft, including unmanned airborne vehicles.

Vodacek’s research was conducted as part of the NASA-funded project, FIRES, or Forest fIRe (infrared) Imaging Experimental System. His team included RIT scientists and graduate students. New York Congressman James Walsh, chair of the VA/HUD/Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the NASA budget, and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter supported federal funding for the FIRES program.

To talk to Anthony Vodacek, contact Susan Murphy at 585-475-5061 or