New wildfire-detection research will pinpoint small fires from 10,000 feet

April 09, 2003

When the wildfire season begins, the United States will be drawn into a territorial battle that has become an unfortunate rite of spring.

The U.S. Forest Service soon will have the advantage of an entirely new tool that will identify and locate wildfires as small as 8-to-12 inches in diameter from 10,000 feet altitude. Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology are creating a prototype of this new remote sensing system for trial by the Forest Service with $1.4 million from NASA.

The project, known as the Wildfire Airborne Sensor Program (WASP), is being conducted at RIT's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. It was made possible through the efforts of Congressman Jim Walsh, chair of the House VA/HUD Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, who has provided nearly $8 million through the NASA budget over four years to support this research at RIT. The WASP program is an extension of the Forest Fires Imaging Experimental System research initiative that provided the foundation for the sensor device being developed through WASP.

Project directors Donald McKeown and Michael Richardson, RIT distinguished researchers, will update the Forest Service on WASP on April 10 at the organization's annual Geospatial Conference in Colorado Springs.

WASP, now in phase one of a two-phase project, will be a multispectral mapping system. It will combine infrared and high-resolution visible digital "mapping" cameras with a geographic positioning system, along with specially written software to operate the cameras and collect and interpret the data.

"Mapping cameras are used elsewhere," McKeown says. "However, the combination of that camera with three infrared cameras isn't really being done by anyone else. The combination is unique."

The suite of cameras will be mounted on a gimbal, a pointing mechanism, on an aircraft. The cameras will take a series of snap shots as they pivot back and forth, sweeping across the line of flight. Automated software will stitch the images into a mosaic and combine them spectrally to detect the presence of a fire.

Each camera will read a different spectral band: three infrared cameras from Indigo Systems Inc. will detect fires by "seeing" heat in the short-wave, mid-wave and long-wave bands of the electromagnetic spectrum; a high-resolution digital camera from Pixel Physics will map the terrain in the visible spectrum.

The combination of cameras will allow the Forest Service to reliably detect fires with low false alarms even under bright sunlight, which normally reduces the effectiveness of current fire-detection systems.

RIT computer engineering graduate student David Morse is writing the software that will run the WASP system by operating the cameras, collecting data and knitting together the information in an integrated way for the operator to use.

Critical to the system is an inertial measurement unit, a precision instrument from Applanix Corp. that will pinpoint the exact location of the high-resolution digital "mapping" camera each time a picture is taken.

"We'll be able to correlate every pixel and every image to a place on the ground, longitude and latitude, so we can go from an image to a map," says McKeown, who is also director of RIT's Laboratory for Imaging Algorithms and Systems, where WASP research takes place.

The two scientists expect to have the system installed on an aircraft in June for flight testing, data collection, and system characterization and calibration. To avoid taxing Forest Service resources, they will wait until the end of the fire season to try out the equipment on a Forest Service plane.

Notes Richardson: "RIT is not only developing a state-of-the-art fire-detection system, but also an important research instrument that can be used to analyze a variety of environmental problems."
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Rochester Institute of Technology

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