Fighting fires from space

How high-capacity satellites greatly improve observation abilities

Wildfires in the United States

The year 2020 will stand out for many reasons, the clear frontrunner being the global pandemic. But in the U.S., it will also be remembered for the horrific toll that wildfires took across the West.

In all, more than 58,000 wildfires burned 10.1 million acres nationwide, most of it across California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. California alone saw almost 40% of that, with approximately 4.2 million acres destroyed by fires fueled by hot, dry weather and high winds. The rapid spread of these fires quickly overwhelmed crews on the ground and tankers in the air. Colorado’s East Troublesome fire in Rocky Mountain National Park burned at the staggering rate of 6,000 acres per hour at times, once destroying 100,000 acres in a single day, because of extremely low humidity and winds above 35 mph.

And 2021 isn’t shaping up to be much better, with enormous conflagrations like the Dixie Fire in California and Bootleg Fire in Oregon just two of 47,525 wildfires across the U.S. that have burned 6,494,054 acres as of mid October.

With increasingly dry conditions across the West, getting a handle on a blaze before it becomes an inferno can be nearly impossible, especially with traditional firefighting methods. Until recently, fighting rapidly spreading fires hadn’t changed much since the 1950s, when converted WWII aircraft were used to spot fire size and direction. They relayed that information via radio to the ground, and fire crews were deployed based on the pilot’s observations. Photographers on board took pictures that were later developed and scrutinized.

Efficiency increased with the advent of digital photos, but lag time still remained in the time between taking photos and having ground crews analyze them, make decisions, and mobilize to the burn site. In the meantime, fires continued to spread.

But that reality is swiftly changing. Technology used in other arenas is now being applied to fighting wildfires, and firefighters are using communication links to pinpoint real-time activities on the ground.

Technology is key

Firefighters’ situational awareness is beginning to improve thanks to fast, modern broadband technology. Now, a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with special technology called GeoFOCIS — developed by AEVEX Aerospace along with high-speed satellite connectivity from Viasat — is transforming the communications, data, and the overall ability to contain fires. Giving ground crew firefighters the ability to see the direction and spread of in real time saves time, property, and – most importantly – lives.

“Obviously, the faster you can assign resources when a fire is at a smaller state, the easier it is to manage and hopefully prevent it from growing out of control,” said Garrett Hogan, Program Manager with the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) group at Viasat.

AEVEX’s GeoFOCIS software suite provides a moving map display, utilizing sources such as full motion video (color and infrared data), photogrammetry, communications, reports/mission data, and more. This means that a plane flying over a burning area can send both fire perimeters and instantaneous high-definition video to fire managers on the ground.

“With this, firefighters can not only see the fire’s location, they can also see the fire’s intensity. And then, utilizing weather, atmospheric information, and current wind data, they can position people and resources in the optimum location to fight the fires,” said Jim Herren, Director of Aircraft Innovation and Integration for Viasat.

This technology was put to good use during a fire in a residential area of Carlsbad, CA. Crews on the ground spotted palm trees exploding and showering nearby homes with sparks and embers. Firefighters were then able to pinpoint the effected street and extinguish the fire before it grew out of control. Just three acres were burned, and the Carlsbad Fire Department credited the technology for the quick response.

The GeoFOCIS suite is a complex 3D geo-mapping service, using a moving-map display with a geospatial database. To function successfully, it must have access to reliable, high-speed, high-capacity satellite connectivity.

“The AEVEX technology integrates multiple sensor information into useable products to help wildfire management personnel to make better, more efficient, and more effective decisions that reduce loss of life and damage to property or infrastructure,” said Ron Trosclair, Program Manager at AEVEX Aerospace.

The connectivity needed to handle all that data is provided by Viasat’s high-capacity satellites. This is the same technology that evolved efficiency for military aircraft personnel, who can send and receive real-time situational awareness while conducting a mission, as well as user experience for airline passengers, who can stream video, shop online, or watch the news in real time while travelling.

The company’s upcoming global satellite constellation, ViaSat-3, will provide even greater capacity and coverage for applications like GeoFOCIS.

A more affordable solution

As satellite capacity grows and becomes more available, the cost for this new technology decreases.

“These capabilities might have been cost-prohibitive on standard satellites in the past,” Herren said. “But our modern high-capacity satellites allow us to actually reduce the cost per bit so we can complete tasks that weren’t achievable in the past because of the high cost of operating over lower-capacity satellites.”

This high-bandwidth capability also enables aircraft to fly much higher while still getting high-quality, high-resolution data. The high-resolution cameras in the AEVEX solution allow pilots to avoid the extreme temperatures emanating from a fire and the associated turbulent air, which can make it difficult to capture a clear picture from directly above.

A growing problem

Record temperatures and lack of precipitation on the west coast and in the southwest have created ripe conditions for wildfires. Despite this, there is a high demand for development in these fire-prone areas. The National Fire Protection Journal states that two million homes in California are located in areas considered high risk or extreme risk for wildfires.

“Of course living by or in a forest sounds great, but obviously when a fire comes that is the worst place to have your house,” says Cristina Santin Nuno, an associate biosciences professor at Swansea University in Wales who specializes in wildfire research.

Technology used to fight fires and quickly mitigate the dangerous situations they cause grows ever more important as climate change has increased both the severity of wildfires and the length of the wildfire season itself. While lives and property suffer great losses in fires, there are other lasting negative effects as well. The EPA has estimated that long-term health issues due to toxic debris in the air, soil, and water left behind in burned areas caused $450 billion in health care costs between 2008 and 2012 — the most recent data available. This includes premature deaths, hospital admissions, and chronic respiratory illnesses. And the weather-forecasting website AccuWeather predicted that the costs of the 2020 fire season in property damage and fire suppression efforts alone could total $130-$150 billion.

Vic Farah, Vice President of Viasat’s Assured Mobility Solutions (AMS) business, expressed optimism for addressing this immense and costly challenge.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed in the U.S. Senate clearly outlines an ambition to focus resources on wildfire prevention, including substantial funding for wildfire risk reduction. Looking ahead, the inherent effect-driven capabilities within ViaSat-3 offer a fiscally conscious solution for wildfire mitigation that targets this niche area of operation versus the larger, more cost-prohibitive models that exist within industry today.”

You can find the official joint announcement from Viasat and AEVEX’s on our website.