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Urban Sky's Stratospheric Balloons Revolutionize Wildfire Management

We are excited to share details of our first operational flight demonstration of the HotSpot monitoring system, which showcases the latest development of Urban Sky’s stratospheric Microballoon™ with a new sensor that has the groundbreaking ability to capture real-time thermal imagery of active wildfires in high resolution.


HotSpot took flight on June 2nd, beginning at 8:33 AM local time and landed approximately four hours later at 12:36 PM. During the flight, our balloon system floated to nearly 18 km (~60,000 feet) above an active wildfire in the Gila National Forest, capturing thermal infrared data. In just over 2 hours of imaging, the system collected 320,000 acres of land area (about 1/3rd the area of the state of Rhode Island) representing a capture rate of over 2,500 acres per minute. The system identified 32,000 acres of terrain either burnt or actively burning from the Pass Fire.


~3m long-wave infrared Hotspot data collected from above the Pass Fire in New Mexico on June 2nd, 2023.


Our stratospheric balloons operate in the space between airplanes and satellites, well above commercial aircraft. At these altitudes, our balloon systems maintain a unique viewpoint where broad areas can be scanned at high rates without disrupting firefighting aircraft and avoiding the challenging and dangerous smoke-filled restricted airspace. This is in direct contrast to thermal imaging aircraft and drones, which pose logistical challenges by operating in restricted airspace and safety risks to pilots flying in smoke-filled environments, as well as being more costly to operate. While satellites also avoid this airspace, satellite wildfire data products lack the adequate spatial resolution and timeliness to provide real-time insight to response organizations.


The flight path of Urban Sky's Microballoon is depicted above, with the long-wave-infrared imaging data swath depicted below the flight path, representing ~320,000 acres of data collected in just over 2 hours.


HotSpot is equipped with a lightweight thermal infrared camera that captures high-resolution images of wildfires and transmits the location of hotspots in near real-time via a satellite link. This means that fire managers, equipped with nothing more than an internet connection, can access accurate, up-to-the-minute information on a wildfire's location and movement. This is a giant leap forward, reducing the current latency from hours down to a few minutes.


During this demonstration, HotSpot captured imagery with a native ground sample distance (resolution) of approximately 3 meters that is down-sampled to 5 meters for real-time transmission. To put this in context, the highest resolution products of leading satellites like MODIS and VIIRS is no better than 375 meters, according to NASA. Our technology provides over 100 times higher resolution, delivering finer details with significantly lower latency compared to existing satellite data products. This high-resolution real-time data is crucial for identifying fire lines, predicting spread, and coordinating an effective response.


HotSpot represents a revolutionary, cost-effective approach to monitoring and combatting wildfires. The payloads used for this operation weigh less than 6 pounds and take up a space roughly the size of a shoebox with half-meter antennas. This micro-sized system can be deployed in under 5 minutes by one operator, from a remote location, away from an active fire. We utilize our custom, physics-based stratospheric flight simulation engine to select a launch location that places our system above the target fire region. The balloon systems operate far above the areas they are sensing and are recovered far away from the site, ensuring that the firefighting crews are left unencumbered by the presence of the vehicle.


Upon landing, our balloon systems are then recovered to be serviced and reused. These systems are zero emission and are propelled by the wind, avoiding the use of environmentally harmful jet fuel and rocket propellant. The advantages of rapid and remote deployment, combined with their environmental friendliness, make our system an incredibly practical solution for wildfire management.


This successful flight demonstration is a critical milestone as we navigate the escalating challenges of wildfires nationwide and as wildfire suppression costs surge. The HotSpot system was conceived through a NASA Grant as part of the FIREX program aimed at improving technology to track the downwind air quality impacts of wildfire smoke. HotSpot is currently funded through AFWERX with technical and research support from the Air Force Research Lab and the University of Colorado, Boulder.


Urban Sky has conducted over 100 Microballoon missions, and regularly captures data for commercial customers including Denver Water, USGS, the U.S. Air Force, and several major energy, insurance and environmental companies and agencies.


Following this success of this demonstration, the company established a Hotspot Pilot Program, with the goal of flying operational missions above real wildfires in 2023 and 2024. If you’re a wildfire management professional, please contact us at info@urbansky.com for more information on the program and how we can help your team with more responsive, real-time, high-resolution wildfire monitoring. Additionally, if you're a researcher interested in the full data set collected from the Pass Fire last week, please contact us!

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