Building a Smarter Forest

Cutting-edge tech -- algorithms and robots and drones -- could save lives during natural disasters.

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Only you can prevent forest fires. Well, you and a dozen friendly robots.

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That's the argument made by computer scientists M.P.Sivaram Kumar and S. Rajasekaran in a recent article in the Journal of Computing entitled "Path Planning Algorithm for Extinguishing Forest Fires." Their thesis is simple: the vast majority of forests are destroyed by wild forest fires, and current methods of sylvan vigilance -- mainly those involved individual personnel on foot patrol -- are grossly inefficient in identifying emerging threats. Their pre-defined route may be damaged or obscured, inclement weather affects visibility, and life on patrol is boring and "miserable," leading to a lack of attention.  

Kumar and Rajasekaran argue that deploying robotic systems throughout wooded areas will increase firefighters' ability not just to identify emerging threats, but also to more effectively plot the path of a wildfire, and then deploy the appropriate resources to the right places. The two imagine a grid-based system of automated drones, designed to detect abnormal changes in temperature and relay data back to a command center:

The automatic forest fire detection and extinguishing system consists of nodes deployed deterministically in a forest area and all the nodes know their location based on coordinate values of a matrix. Each node is equipped with a temperature sensor and an Omni directional antenna. Nodes continuously monitor the environment to check if there is fire or not in the particular cell. When change in temperature i.e. temperature raises above a certain threshold, is detected by a particular node they send message packets which contain location measurements. These packets are received by one of the corner node. The corner node then sends the packet to the Actor which in turn will process the packet which can be used in reaching the target area to extinguish fire.

On-the-ground nodes, they argue, are significantly better than the preexisting satellite detection systems that, due to a long scan period and low resolution of images, end up detecting fires relatively late. Relying on satellites often means that firefighting personnel deploy more resources in their firefighting than would otherwise be necessary.

There are obvious environmental concerns to stringing a sprawling forest with robotic nodes. Introducing any man-made object, even stationary a drone, can have unintended consequences on a complex arboreal ecosystem. Unexpected costs -- a tree falling in the woods, surprise visits from assorted large mammals -- could make deploying and maintaining a robotic grids prohibitively expensive.

But among the significant additional benefits: potentially saving lives. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), a system developed by FEMA, the FCC, and wireless carriers, will soon be deployed in emergency situations like severe weather to notify citizens of imminent threats to their safety. Within the next few weeks, nearly everyone in the country with a mobile phone could start receiving text messages from the National Weather Service, local law enforcement, or perhaps even the President. Here's how it works

In the event of an emergency, an authorized alerting agency can select a cell tower (or towers) to broadcast a WEA. In order to receive the message, a person must be within range of the cell-tower broadcast, and must have a phone capable of "hearing" the the broadcast. Most cellular devices manufactured after mid-2011 already have this capability.

It is through the use of CB technology that CMAS is able to provide some geographic targeting without the need for opting-in. However, it is important to note that because WEAs are "broadcast" from towers, the geo-targeting feature is not as precise as GPS. GPS is a two-way street of communication between a GPS-equipped device and various positioning satellites. WEAs are not two-way...it is simply a modern day "shout" to give a heads-up that something requires your attention. 

According to the National Fire Protection Association, only 11 people were killed in wildfire-related incidents in 2011. But application of the sensor technology to, say, rivers with a high likelihood of flooding, earthquake-prone regions, and other unstable natural centers could give first responders a useful heads-up. When tied in with FEMA's new WEA system, average citizens could have enough advance warning of danger to protect themselves in the event of a natural disaster. And in the event of a fast-moving fire or flood, a few extra minutes could mean the difference between life and death. 
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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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