UO team designs an eye in the sky to keep watch on wildfires

This fall, the U.S. Forest Service reached out to the UO’s Oregon Hazards Lab with a request: Could the lab design and build a portable, solar-powered, wildfire detection camera that could be packed into a remote location and deployed in response to a wildfire? 

This article was first seen in Around the O on December 20, 2023. 

This fall, the U.S. Forest Service reached out to the UO’s Oregon Hazards Lab with a request: Could the lab design and build a portable, solar-powered, wildfire detection camera that could be packed into a remote location and deployed in response to a wildfire?

Lab personnel went to work, and in eight working days they had engineered and fabricated a fully functioning proof-of-concept prototype, which the Forest Service then deployed to a rocky pinnacle on the edge of the Anvil Fire near Port Orford in southwest Oregon.

“It’s really exciting the U.S. Forest Service was able to come to us … and within two weeks we had it working on top of this mountain,” said Nick Maggio, assistant director for wildfire technology in the Oregon Hazards Lab. “This is something that has never been done before.”

The Oregon Hazards Lab is a research lab within the UO’s Department of Earth Sciences, which is part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Its mission is to detect, monitor and mitigate natural and human-caused hazards, such as earthquakes and wildfires. The lab is a partner in running the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System.

Since 2018, lab personnel have installed 45 stationary wildfire cameras across Oregon, often in remote locations and sometimes not, such as the one atop Prince Lucien Campbell Hall on campus. The cameras are public facing and can be viewed at alertwest.live.

“It’s our teams that go in and install cameras, often at very remote locations,” Maggio said. “We build solar power stations, and we climb communications towers.”

What’s new is the development of a portable wildfire camera.

The Forest Service reached out to the UO because part of the Anvil Fire was burning in a remote, inaccessible area, said Jacob Gear, USFS regional fire prevention coordinator for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska regions. Typically, fire managers would monitor such a fire with daily, low-level helicopter flights, which carry considerable risk, he said.

“The idea of a portable camera is a great option to reduce that risk,” Gear said.

By the time the Oregon Hazards Lab delivered the prototype, the fire had died down, Gear said, “but it was a great way to test the technology. The university is a great partner to work with. … it was incredible how fast they built it.”

In practice, the camera worked as designed, providing images with great clarity and a strong zoom lens, he said.

“I could see the coast 14 miles away,” he said.

In addition to being useful for monitoring remote fires, the portable camera would be useful for fires burning near communities, where it may be hard to discern fire lines in the early stages, he said. And it also would be useful for keeping track of containment lines around prescribed burns, where it’s not possible to keep personnel on the ground 24 hours a day.

The prototype weighed less than 200 pounds, with lithium-ion batteries accounting for 80 of those pounds. It is powered by a solar array that produces 800 watts and runs off the satellite internet constellation Starlink for outbound internet traffic. The Technical Services Administration, the UO’s scientific machine shop, was able to custom-make some components for the unit.

A crew of eight USFS wildland firefighters helped pack the unit into a rocky outcropping and get it installed.

“I really can’t stress how much of a momentous technological undertaking it was for us to figure out all these problems all at once,” Maggio said. “This was the first time we used lithium-ion batteries. It’s because we have such a talented, deep bench of skilled professionals working for the Oregon Hazards Lab that we were able to do this so quickly.”

The camera uses machine learning to detect smoke plumes during the day, and at night it moves into infrared mode to flag hot spots that would be undetectable by the human eye, Maggio said.

When the algorithm generates a probability that something in its view is smoke, an alert is sent to detection center in Chico, California, where a human can examine the image and operate the camera controls to zoom, pan or tilt to take a closer look. Once the human operator confirms there’s a fire, software is used to locate the blaze on a map and send an automated alert to fire managers.

Over winter, the Oregon Hazards Lab will continue to refine the design and reduce its weight, so that no single component weighs more than 50 pounds, and with a goal that a crew of two to four members could pack the unit into remote locations.

The real payoff of the project, Maggio said, is that it complements other research being done within the Department of Earth Sciences, the Institute of Ecology and Evolution and other research groups, where sensors are put into the field to remotely collect data over a long time.

“Whether it’s ecological monitoring, earthquake monitoring, wildfire monitoring, the core principle is the same: You need to power some device and get the information back,” he said. “What we hope to do with this prototype is to level up our ability to rapidly support deployments of sensors out in the field from a variety of researchers here at the UO.”

Eventually, the goal is to have a cache of rapidly deployable, portable telemetry and power solutions that “can be ready to go at a moment’s notice should a situation arises that needs quick monitoring,” he said.

—By Tim Christie, Office of the Provost
—Top photo: The wildfire detection camera on a ridge near a fire in Oregon's Coast Range

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