Ali Velshi, a business correspondent and analyst for MSNBC, focused on wildfires for his Earth Day commentary. He introduces his concerns by noting that “More than half of the most destructive wildfires in US history have occurred since 2018,” with annual acres burned doubling in the past 30 years and forecast to double again in the next 30. The intro to his report continues … “Meanwhile, wildfire fighting tactics for detection and suppression haven’t changed in decades – and as the fires get bigger, faster, and deadlier, firefighters can’t keep up. New technologies are needed – soon – to save ecosystems, property, and lives.”
His report expands on the recent years of record fires and the impact this has had on communities and the firefighters who work to meet this daunting challenge. His key point … after 53 years of protesting and calling for action and significant changes, we’re now amid the “behemoth challenges” of climate change. On this Earth Day, Velshi suggests for us all to face and address the wildfire crisis with new technology and approaches.
That technology and business approaches are a component of Velshi’s call may reflect his reporting focus. And it’s worth noting that Velshi sits on the board of the XPRIZE, and his Earth Day report echoes the XPRIZE’s recent challenge focused on wildfire.
Details on Velshi’s broadcast were also tweeted on Earth Day.
On this 53rd annual #EarthDay, we’re focusing in on #wildfires. Their growing intensity is far outpacing our ability to combat them, and it’s only going to get worse. New methods are needed asap in order to save ecosystems, property, and lives. #velshipic.twitter.com/zReBLtj1Xv
Best-selling author and futurist Peter Diamandis became frustrated in recent years with the “craziness” of constant wildfire alerts he’d received. But unlike most people, Diamandis has a Rolodex full of wealthy benefactors and politicians, along with experience with a solution he had used before: Create a contest.
On April 21 his group XPRIZE launched its latest contest: finding new ideas to detect and suppress wildfires.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) said the prize threshold includes detecting and suppressing a high-risk wildfire in 10 minutes or less, and pinpointing from space all fire ignitions across multiple states or countries — in 60 seconds. These are the challenges for innovators in XPRIZE Wildfire, a four-year, $11 million competition to develop and demonstrate fully autonomous capabilities to find and fight wildfires.
The United Nations, the White House, and Congress recently have prioritized destructive wildfires as a major economic, environmental, and safety threat. Patti Poppe, CEO of PG&E, said they are co-sponsoring the project. “Today’s launch of XPRIZE Wildfire is a call-to-action to entrepreneurs, roboticists, artificial-intelligence experts, scientists, and innovators from across the globe to revolutionize wildfire detection and suppression,” she said.
XPRIZE Wildfire encourages teams from around the world to innovate across firefighting technologies in two different tracks designed to transform how fires are detected and suppressed.
In the Autonomous Wildfire Response track, teams will need to monitor at least 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles), and autonomously suppress a wildfire within 10 minutes of detection.
In the Space-Based Wildfire Detection & Intelligence track, teams will have one minute to accurately detect all fires across a landscape larger than entire states or countries, and 10 minutes to precisely characterize and report data (with the fewest false positives) to two ground stations.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Palmer Luckey, a 30-year-old founder of Oculus, a virtual reality company that sold for $2 billion, announced that he was forming the first team to compete for the prize. He said he cares more about solving the problem than winning the money, but he believes the cash will motivate other contestants to form teams and compete.
“I sold my last company for billions of dollars so I can do whatever I want,” he said. “We started working on wildfire tech because I think it’s very, very important. The money in this prize to me is honestly immaterial.” Luckey said at the contest launch that he thinks software, not hardware, will make the difference in detecting and containing fires.
The four-year contest is not winner-take-all. Teams will compete for top prizes of as much as $3.5 million and a bonus $1 million prize to develop technology that can detect fires both from the ground and from space, and fight them using drones or other autonomous vehicles. They’ll compete, for example, to see which technology can accurately detect fires across a land mass the size of a state or country in one minute or suppress fires using an autonomous vehicle within 10 minutes.
Andrea Santy, who is running the competition for XPrize, also said the prize money may not be the most important driver. Teams will benefit from multiple rounds of live testing and validation that would be hard to organize independently. The group is spending an additional $11 million beyond the prize money to run the contest, she said; some of that money will fund a documentary about the competition.
XPRIZE Wildfire is offered in partnership with Co-Sponsors PG&E and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Presenting Sponsor Minderoo Foundation, Bonus Prize Sponsor Lockheed Martin, Supporting Sponsor Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and Benefactors Nichola Eliovits and Michael Antonov. Sixteen teams are already registered. For more information, to get involved, or to register a team to compete, visit the xprize.org/wildfire website.