Where the wildfires are

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On March 20, 2006

It inspired Matthew Gann, ECE’05, to pursue graduate school, and instilled in Michael Ellebrecht, ECE’05, a newfound love for writing. It could save the lives of firefighters, preserve countless acres of natural resources and cut the huge annual costs of firefighting.

“It” is a new system for mapping wildfires using wireless sensor networks – a research project that Gann, Ellebrecht and Randall Bilbrey, a senior in computer engineering, have been pursuing for the past year and a half under the guidance of Shoukat Ali, assistant professor of computer and electrical engineering, and Sahra Sedigh-Ali, assistant professor jointly of computer and electrical engineering and information science and technology.

Wildfires consumed more than 8.5 million acres in the United States in 2005, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Officials rely on satellite imagery to detect wildfires. But those images are often outdated because the satellite flies over the wildfire area only once a day, say the student researchers. “According to wildfire suppression experts, that’s not enough,” says Ellebrecht. “They want a map of the fire every 30 minutes.

We want to make our system so that it fills in the gaps that the current system has.”

The three hope their research will provide the answer. “If instead of sort of guessing as to where we should deploy the resources, if we could know that this is the absolute best way to deploy the resources, we could fight these (fires) quicker” and considerably reduce expense and risk factors, Ellebrecht says.

The students hope to develop a system in which thousands or even millions of tiny sensors – possibly no larger than the head of a pin – can be dropped from the air over an area in danger of being consumed by a spreading wildfire. These minuscule computers, each equipped with a number of sensors, would communicate with one another via a wireless network and send a map of the area to a base station every 30 minutes.

Issues such as cost and the potential environmental impact of the sensors are also being taken into account through this project, the students say. “If we’re trying to sell this,” says Gann, “we are definitely going to get the price down so you aren’t spending close to a billion a year trying to suppress wildfires.”

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On March 20, 2006. Posted in Features, Spring 2006