SENSE-ing Forest Fires

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UW Tacoma research group with international ties builds sensors to track and predict environmental changes.
The SENSE team measures environmental data, such as temperature and humidity, with a network of small sensors. | Photo and above photo by Cody Char.In 2013, nineteen firefighters lost their lives in an Arizona wildfire. Conditions had changed suddenly and without warning, and the elite team was caught in the blaze. It was the largest loss of life for an American fire department since Sept. 11, 2001.[1] 
Predicting the path of a wildfire is a tricky task, at best. But a group of UW Tacoma students are working with international partners to create a network of “smoke detectors in the forest,” a phrase used by Bob Landowski, ’14, laboratory support engineer with UW Tacoma’s Institute of Technology.
The Sensing the Environment, Network Systems and Energy (SENSE) research group formed two years ago to use small hardware to measure big environmental shifts. The small but dedicated group of students in the Institute of Technology uses a network of wireless sensors – each smaller than an iPhone – to collect big data on environmental changes, especially forest fires. 

Landowski assembles sensors and power sources on his work table. | Photo by Cody Char.

The sensors “basically work just like a fishing net in high-risk areas for forest fires,” says Christopher Barrett, ’15, project manager for SENSE who is double-majoring in computer science and systems and computer engineering and systems. If a node senses a strong change in temperature or goes offline, that signals a problem and can help expedite response time for evacuations and firefighters.
The project uses a wide network of relatively inexpensive sensors, designed to cover a large swath of land and disposable enough to burn in a fire. 
Even though the sensors are small, they still need to be self-powered. Could you imagine changing batteries on a network of thousands of sensors? One of the SENSE team’s biggest challenges is harvesting and efficiently using enough solar energy to transmit signals between nodes, even in a heavily wooded forest.
In a related project, the SENSE team is testing sensors in Chico, California, to see if they can be used for agricultural and irrigation improvement. These experiments will help inform the team’s other work with forest fires as they test the network’s ability to gather data.

Barrett is assembling his drone piece by piece. | Photo courtesy Chris Barrett.

Barrett’s capstone project was inspired by his work with the SENSE research group. He is creating a drone to help detect weather conditions above and around a fire. 
Researchers at the University of León in Spain have developed a model to generally predict the movement of forest fires, but are not able to project the effects of “microclimates” within a blaze, small zones with climates different from the surrounding environment. Microclimates can cause the fire to swiftly, violently, and randomly shift direction, undoing the work of fire fighters and sometimes putting them in danger.
Barrett is building a five foot, multi-rotor drone to collect data on wind speed and direction to gather data from these microclimates, thereby better predicting the behavior of fires. 
“My hope is that the drone will help save human lives and property and help to keep this natural phenomenon under some semblance of control,” Barrett says. 
Barrett faces a challenge testing and developing a drone that can withstand the extreme temperatures and wind speeds around a forest fire.  Wind gusts around a wildfire can reach 100mph, and near a fire can often change in intensity and direction. Heat transfer from the fire can make the surrounding air as hot as 1,470 °F.
“If we can show that this (proof of concept) will stand, Chris will probably have a job,” predicts Landowski. “For the student that does not have any (job) experience… this will help on a resume.”
SENSE depends on international ties. The sensors are built by a team at the University of Barcelona in Spain; the devices’ power source is developed at the State University of Campinas in Brazil; and the team at UW Tacoma manages the project, the wireless network and big data it generates. 
A view of the back of one of the group's sensors. | Photo by Cody Char.“Our job is to put it all together,” says Landowski. The SENSE team in Tacoma also works on hardware encryption to prevent hackers. 
SENSE began when a group of Brazilian students came to UW Tacoma under the Brazilian government’s Science without Borders program, now called Science Mobility. These students were “critical to the development of the research” says Orlando Baiocchi, professor in the Institute of Technology. Several Brazilian professors have also visited the campus thanks to their connection to the project.
These partnerships have been a way “to extend the reach of the university,” says Landowski. 
However, several members of the group have graduated or gone back to their home institutions in Brazil, and the team is looking for more members. 
SENSE’s projects, Landowski says, teach “things that you’re not going to learn in a classroom.... You get to work with faculty and students from different countries, different cultures. You get hands-on experience.”  

To learn more about the SENSE research group, contact Bob Landowski.

[1] “’For now, we mourn’: Few answers after 19 killed in Arizona wildfire,” by Erin McClam and Ian Johnston, NBC News, June 30, 2013 []


Written by: 
Abby Rhinehart / January 8, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or