Satellites May Some Day Comb Earth for Wildfires - RIT Imaging Scientists Play Lead Role in NASA Project

Imagine a global satellite system that would detect small forest fires before they spread out of control. A global fire alarm would give firefighters the upper hand, preventing wildfires from destroying millions of acres as happened last summer in western United States.

Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science are exploring concepts for satellite systems to locate wildfires when they start. The project represents an application of RIT's First in Class Initiative, a program designed to facilitate partnerships between the university, industry and government.

RIT's expertise in remote sensing will play the lead role in the global fire-monitoring system. The university will work in conjunction with NASA's Regional Applications Center Northeast (RACNE) at Cayuga Community College (CCC) in Auburn, N.Y. The two partners will collaborate with Telespazio, an Italian aerospace company that specializes in satellite operations and communications.

In fiscal year 2000, Congress included a $2.3 million appropriation in NASA's budget to initiate the FIRES project. Since then, total funding has reached nearly $5 million with an additional $2.5 million set aside in the 2001 budget. Congressman James Walsh of Syracuse, who chairs the VA/HUD/Independent Agencies subcommittee, championed the funding.

RIT will develop requirements for the fire-detection instrument for the satellite remote-sensing system during the first phase of the project known as Forest fIRe (infrared) Imaging Experimental System or FIRES. At CCC, RACNE—established to promote the use of remote sensing information at the state and local level—will survey potential users such as local, state and federal agencies. And for its part, Telespazio will provide expertise on spacecraft, satellite system communications and ground control systems.

"FIRES will result in a concept for a satellite system that will greatly enhance the global detection of wildfires," says Michael Richardson, RIT distinguished researcher and FIRES project manager. "RIT's role is to prove the underlying science and establish the feasibility of a multisatellite operational system."

Infrared sensors are currently used to detect surface or thermal temperatures. Through data analysis and modeling of wildfires, RIT will explore the use of infrared thermal sensors and small, sensitive detectors to locate hot spots on earth more accurately and rapidly than existing weather satellites. Larger pixels used by weather satellites provide global coverage, but at a lower resolution than necessary for efficient fire monitoring, Richardson explains.

During the project's first phase, RIT imaging science professor Anthony Vodacek, FIRES principal investigator, and his team will evaluate different fire detection approaches. To test the preliminary technology, the team will fly RIT's airborne sensor over Montezuma Wildlife Refuge in Western New York during a prescribed burn using an aircraft especially equipped to capture thermal data.

Walsh foresees future benefits stemming from the collaboration on the FIRES project. "The joint project is challenging research with spin-off technology potential to help keep our young talented graduates in New York state," Walsh says.

Adds Vodacek, "Projects such as FIRES are important to universities like RIT because they enhance capability and provide students with valuable hands-on experience."

To talk to Richardson or Vodacek about FIRES, contact Susan Murphy at 716-475-5061 or


The Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, part of the College of Science at RIT, offers bachelor's and master's degrees and the nation's only Ph.D. in imaging science. The research and teaching laboratories at the center, established in 1985, are dedicated to electronic imaging, digital image processing, remote sensing, medical imaging, color science, optics and chemical imaging.

Internationally recognized as a leader in imaging, technology, fine and applied arts, and education of the deaf, RIT enrolls 14,000 full- and part-time students in more than 240 career-oriented and professional programs. RIT's cooperative education program is one of the oldest and largest in the nation.

For the past decade, U.S. News and World Report has ranked RIT as one of the nation's leading comprehensive universities. RIT is also included in Yahoo Internet Life's Top 100 Wired Universities, Fisk's Guide to America's Best Colleges, as well as Barron's Best Buys in Education.


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