A thermal imager for your smart phone

Structural fire departments in recent years have discovered the value of thermal imaging cameras to detect dangerous heat sources that could ignite fires, find lingering heat hidden behind walls, and even locate fallen firefighters in a smoky environment. Most of those cameras start at $4,000 and can cost over $10,000.

FLIR ONE thermal cameraAt the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, FLIR, which manufactures some of these high-end forward looking infrared cameras, unveiled a $350 thermal imager that fits over the iPhone 5 or 5S like a protective case. Called the FLIR ONE, the company said it will be available in the spring of 2014. An Android version should be out later in the year.

Using an infrared imaging smart phone in a burning structure is not feasible, but wildland firefighters might find it useful for locating very small lighting-strike fires or finding the last heat sources during mop-up. Or, for example, after the snow has melted, are any of those burn piles we lit two weeks ago still smoldering?

(UPDATE January 31, 2014)

Some images have been posted on the company’s web site that they captured using the first run of FLIR ONE cameras.

Researchers design satellite to detect wildfires — a step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety?

A concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires.

Researchers at Berkeley have designed a concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires. Decades ago we relied on a network of lookout towers staffed by employees and later volunteers who observed emerging fires and reported them by telephone or radio. Today most fires are turned in by residents or travelers with cell phones.

Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

But if a fire is not detected and reported quickly, rapid initial attack is not possible.

This proposed satellite, called FUEGO – Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less and could detect a fire that is about 10 feet in diameter. Assuming that the data from the satellite could be transmitted to the appropriate dispatch center within a minute or two, this could be a major step toward keeping fires small… IF the fire agencies have the appropriate initial attack policies in place and an adequate number of firefighting resources, both ground and air-based, to respond and arrive at the fire within the first 10 to 30 minutes.

FUEGO satellite
Artist’s concept for FUEGO on orbit (FUEGO Concept Art by R. E. Lafever, LBNL)

While the cost of the satellite could be several hundred million dollars, it could conceivably save money if it prevents a few megafires like the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park last summer that to date has cost more than $127 million.

The real time detection of new fires is a very worthy goal, but added to this system should be the capability for real time monitoring and mapping of existing fires. The Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety is a system that could track firefighters on the ground AND the location of the fire, all displayed on one screen. This data should be available in real time to key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections on fires. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. This information could have saved 24 lives in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza Fire. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not know where the firefighters were relative to the location of the fire.

All of this technology exists. It would be expensive to implement, but it could save lives.

Infrared mapping, the New York Times on Lassen’s Reading Fire, and more Yarnell Hill articles

Reading Fire
Reading Fire. Photo by Lassen National Park.

Several online articles came to our attention today that you may be interested in.

New York Times

The Times has an excellent article about last year’s Reading Fire in Lassen National Park in northern California. It was a fire use fire that started on July 23, 2012, escaped the maximum management area, and burned outside the park, blackening a total of 28,000 acres. The author, Paul Tullis, oddly, but in a very interesting way, also writes about fire behavior research being conducted at the Missoula Fire Lab. Checking out the article is worth it, if only for the great photos taken by photographer Richard Barnes.

More articles about the Yarnell Hill Fire

The monthly magazines are now coming out with their articles about the fire on which 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. They pale in comparison to the good one that was in Outside Magazine, but if you are obsessed with that multiple fatality incident, like many of us are, you’ll want to see the articles in Popular Mechanics and Men’s Journal.

The USFS infrared mapping program

USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, their Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z, parked at NIFC in Boise.

Earthzine has an article that does a good job of summarizing the U.S. Forest Service program that operates two fixed wing aircraft that map ongoing wildfires. Here is an excerpt:

…The two IR aircraft are a twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air B-200 and a small jet, the Cessna Citation Bravo II. Both aircraft take off at between 7-9 p.m. and continuing mapping runs until 4 a.m.

Mapping flights follow a grid plotted out in advance, at an altitude of 10,000- 14,000 feet. From that height, each pass scans a swath 6.5 miles wide. For accuracy, passes overlap each other by 25-30 percent. Flying at 300 miles per hour, a map produced by the Super King is accurate by plus or minus 1 foot. The faster moving jet is only slightly less precise – providing maps accurate to plus or minus 10 feet.

The imagery is sent in real-time to interpreters on the ground while the aircraft are still making runs over a fire. Some 48 interpreters are scattered across the country and will have completed maps on the screens of firefighter command centers before the aircraft make their last landings of the night.

Forest Service receives new airborne sensor from NASA

USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, their Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z

The U.S. Forest Service has been using dedicated fixed wing aircraft with infrared sensors to detect and map wildland fires since the 1960s or 1970s. So I was intrigued after reading a news release from NASA about an airborne sensor that will help gather information about wildland fires. Here is an excerpt:

NASA Imaging Sensor Prepares for Western Wildfire Season

WASHINGTON – Airborne imaging technology developed at NASA and transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (USFS) in 2012 is being tested to prepare for this year’s wildfire season in the western United States.
The Autonomous Modular Sensor (AMS) is a scanning spectrometer designed to help detect hot-spots, active fires, and smoldering and post-fire conditions. Scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and USFS engineers installed it on a Cessna Citation aircraft that belongs to the Forest Service. The USFS plans to use it in operational fire imaging and measurement…

Having experience as an Infrared Interpreter (IRIN), converting data on infrared images to maps so that the information can be used by firefighters on the ground, I wanted more information about how this sensor will be used in wildfire management. I knew that the person with the answers would be Woody Smith, an Avionics and Infrared Technician with the U.S. Forest Service’s National Infrared Operations (NIROPs) unit. I sent him some questions by email and here is his response:


(Woody said:)

The main purpose for the transfer of the AMS Sensor to the USFS is for additional remote sensing needs. Missions such as forest health sensing, post fire analysis, and earth mapping. The AMS has the capability to map wildfires and will be used as an additional system in a third aircraft if one becomes available.

But to answer your questions in order:

Is this replacing previous sensor(s)?

No. This will be an additional system to enhance our capabilities for busy seasons. Though for now, it “lives” on the Citation (N144Z) for testing and comparison purposes. Once the NIROPs Unit begins to get busy we will remove this system and reinstall the Phoenix System. We anticipate using the AMS sensor during the “off season” for earth observation and post fire analysis.

What is the advantage of this sensor?

The AMS Sensor has 16 channels that can be used to map the earth simultaneously. Most of the channels are in the visual range and color IR. There are 4 used for thermal IR (TIR) and as soon as I get permission from the guys at NASA I will send you a briefing paper that explains the origin and uses of the AMS. For now, the USFS intends to map some vegetation areas for various other government agencies and fly real time comparison flights over wild land fires. We need to assess its operational capabilities. One advantage is the capability to perform scientific earth observation for post fire analysis while collecting and mapping wild land fires.

On the new AMS system, is liquid nitrogen still used to cool the sensor, like on the Phoenix System currently being used?

No. The TIR (thermal infrared) channels use sterling coolers and thermo electric (TE) coolers. But as the Phoenix System will hold LN2 for over 16 hours we only have to fill them once a day before the night’s flights begin. (Sterling coolers and thermo-electric cooling is very expensive while liquid nitrogen is very cheap!)

How many sensors does the USFS IR system use?

We currently own 6 ea 2-channel thermal IR scanner systems. 2 from Daedalus and 4 that we developed ourselves known as the Phoenix Wild Land Fire Mapping Systems. We could field 3 Phoenix Systems simultaneously but we only have 2 aircraft capable of carrying IR equipment so we use the additional hardware as spares for “quick repairs” during the fire season.

Will similar AMS sensors be installed on other IR aircraft?


Are there any major changes to the Infrared program for this year?

Two exciting changes coming have not yet been implemented. The first is improved heat detection and the second is with the quality of the image itself. The signal processing changes we made last year has already vastly improved the heat detection and image quality as well as sped up the delivery time. But due to a busy year (2012) we are lagging behind our anticipated schedule. As soon as these are implemented I will send you an email.


Here is a link to a Word document with a (very) technical description of the AMS sensor.

AMS-Wildfire scanhead

New Landsat satellite provides images of Galena fire

Landsat Galena Fire
Image from the new Landsat satellite, showing Galena Fire. NASA photo. Click to enlarge.

The newest Landsat satellite has successfully achieved orbit and is being checked out by NASA for a few months before it is turned over to the U.S. Geological Survey and renamed Landsat 8. We were overdue to get a new Landsat — the last one was launched in 1999.

The image above is a test that was distributed by NASA before the instruments on the spacecraft had been fully checked out and calibrated. It was acquired on March 16, the day after the Galena Fire started. If you go to the NASA site and click on the button that says “VIEW IMAGE COMPARISON”, after a few seconds a slider will appear on the image which you can drag left and right to see data acquired by different sensors on the satellite. Very cool.

This spacecraft has additional sensors and technology new to the Landsat series. I may be the only one interested in this since I used to work closely with the US Forest Service Infrared aircraft used for mapping fires, but the older Landsats had a technology similar to the USFS Infrared planes, and used a scanning technique of reflecting the imagery off a rotating 3-sided mirror onto a sensor. A row of data was recorded with each pass of one side of the mirror. The excerpt below from NASA explains the new technology:

The Landsat Data Continuity Mission builds on this foundation and brings with it two advanced science instruments that will deliver more data — and clearer images — than ever before. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) is designed to measure visible, near infrared, and short wave infrared wavelengths, while the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) monitors temperatures on the Earth’s surface. Using what scientists call a “push-broom” approach, these detectors will record a constant stream of data as the spacecraft passes 438 miles overhead in a near-circular, near-polar orbit.

“All earlier Landsat sensors, on Landsats 1 through 7, were called ‘whisk-broom sensors.’ Each one of these sensors used a mirror that oscillated back and forth,” Irons said.

“In contrast, both of the sensors on the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, OLI and TIRS, instead of using an oscillating mirror, they will use long arrays of detectors across the focal plane of each instrument.”

During each satellite pass, OLI and TIRS will observe and collect image data for a 185-kilometer-wide swath of land. As Earth rotates beneath the satellite’s orbit, subsequent seams of land will come into view, providing a complete picture of the planet’s surface every 16 days.

I’m thinking that the new thermal infrared sensor will enable Landsat 8 to obtain better images of active vegetation fires than we have previously seen from satellites. By the time the spacecraft acquired the test image on the second day of the Galena Fire, there was probably not a great deal of heat left on the fire, which burned mostly in light fuels, so it looks more like a burn scar than an active fire.

Thanks go out to Daniel

Infrared mapping crews were busy last night

NIROPs_KingAir_LogoThe technicians and pilots staffing the two U.S. Forest Service infrared (IR) aircraft mapping wildland fires were busy Tuesday night as usual.

Here is a list of the fires they worked last night:

  1. Pine Creek
  2. Cache Creek
  3. Millie
  4. Powell SBW Complex
  5. Nineteen Mile
  6. Mustang
  7. Elevation Mountain
  8. Fort Complex
  9. Porcupine
  10. Halstead
  11. Bagley
  12. Trinity Ridge
  13. Mcguire

They work at night because that is when there is a greater difference between the heat of the fire and everything else. After they collect the data from thousands of feet over the fire, they transmit it by radio, Aircell, to computer servers on the ground where it is retrieved by Infrared Interpreters who analyze it and produce maps showing the perimeter of the heat that was detected, including spot fires outside the main perimeter and concentrations of intense heat, or areas with little or none. This is valuable information for the Planning and Operations Sections staffing the fire who make the information available for firefighters at their morning operational period briefings.

The USFS typically operates two IR planes during fire season, a Cessna Citation and a King Air B-200, but can call up a third, an old King Air 90, if things get really busy. They have also contracted with private vendors to provide IR services if the government aircraft can’t handle the workload.

More information about National Infrared Operations.