According to the Wall Street Journal, the Maui wildfires have caused more than $5B in property and infrastructure damage, which pales in comparison to the at least 110 people that have tragically lost their lives.
We’ve seen historically large U.S. public sector investment into wildfire management, including ~$1.5B over five years from the U.S. Department of the Interior to support federal wildland firefighting and resilience.
We’re also beginning to see meaningful private sector investment into wildfire mitigation, disaster preparedness and response. Venture Capital funds like Convective Capital, Catapult, Union Labs, and others are making deep-tech investments into critical technologies that support the ecosystem. Startups like Rain (autonomous drones for fire suppression), Overstory (vegetation monitoring and management), and BurnBot (robotic clean fuel treatment) are developing potentially game-changing solutions for wildfire management.
But more funding and focus is needed. The wildfire problem spans complex topics like prevention, education, hazardous fuel reduction, infrastructure improvement, fire prediction, risk modeling, early detection, rapid response, resilient communications, suppression and containment. It’s a multi-variable problem, but one that, when broken down into its component parts, has the potential to be positively impacted by recent advances in technology.
Of course, there’s no ‘silver bullet’ that will prevent devastation like what happened in Lahaina from happening again. But, for its part, the stratosphere has the potential to be part of the answer, providing novel capabilities that will augment wildfire management in the years to come.
Urban Sky, and the stratosphere in general, can play an important role in the ecosystem of solutions to prevent and combat wildfires. Urban Sky’s stratospheric Microballoon™, a rapidly deployable, ultra-low-cost, un-crewed, broad-area remote sensing and communications platform, is already being deployed and tested above active wildfires in the United States. Below are four ways we expect this technology to augment the wildfire management workflow in the future.
1. Early Detection:
The stratosphere has the potential to offer the combined benefits of satellites and aircraft, allowing for the scanning of broad, sweeping areas (like a satellite) but at an imagery resolution much closer to that of aircraft, and a cost lower than both platforms. Several geostationary satellites, like GOES-16 and GOES-18, provide persistent global coverage, but at a resolution of ~ 2km per pixel at nadir, which isn’t nearly high resolution enough to detect and respond to a fire before it becomes problematic. Urban Sky’s Microballoon’s image in long-wave-infrared at ~3.5m GSD (or an area that would allow a user to identify a single burning tree). They're ultra-low-cost and can be deployed rapidly by just one operator in less than ten minutes. With funding and support from NASA JPL, the U.S. Air Force, and others, Urban Sky has developed a prototype, near-real-time early detection infrared imaging payload that can scan up to ~380 sq. miles per hour in high-resolution (with a swath width of ~9.3 miles), searching for fire signals and smoldering material across vast, remote areas. This system was recently demonstrated above the Pass Fire in New Mexico, with data from that fire shown below. To read more about the results of that mission, check out our blog post here.
2. Real-time Perimeter Mapping:
Where early detection can help prevent wildfires, real-time perimeter mapping can help contain the spread, inform evacuation, and influence response. The same system mentioned above that can be deployed for early detection can also be used to map and monitor wildfire spread in near-real-time, without introducing crewed remote sensing aircraft into an often dangerous, smoke-occluded and restricted airspace environment. See below sample thermal imagery from a recent demonstration flight above an active wildfire. Stratospheric real-time mapping can offer responsive, high-resolution, persistent mapping of active wildfires across vast, remote areas.
3. Search & Rescue
Urban Sky has developed a suite of ultra-high-resolution, custom imagery payloads (~9-10cm GSD) that can be deployed on Microballoons for rapid, broad-area, detailed imagery collection. This data will be captured and processed in less than 24 hours, offering first responders critical situational awareness. This same data can be used by municipal government, property insurers, and others to help plan and manage recovery efforts with up-to-date, low-cost, high-resolution data.
4. Resilient Communications
In addition to remote sensing, stratospheric Microballoons can be paired with high-bandwidth radio communications payloads that serve as rapidly deployable “cell towers in the sky.” Real-time, rapidly deployable, low-cost communications networks allow wildland firefighters to securely share critical information, track crew and vehicle location, and even speak directly to remote, connected firefighters. Urban Sky recently demonstrated this capability alongside its partner, GoTenna, establishing a stratospheric comms network deployed in less than one hour that spanned over 14,000 square miles. You can read more about that mission here.
Urban Sky isn’t the only stratospheric company tackling the wildfire problem. Companies like WindBorne are building ultra-long-duration weather balloons that will capture critical upper atmospheric data for smoke and wind modeling. The stratospheric industry is just now taking off, and it holds enormous and unique potential to support wildfire management and response.