The future of firefighting

By Patrick Boyle

The fires in northern Alberta were extinguished due to the timely arrival of rain. Next time, it may be due to cutting-edge technology.

Dr. Naser El-Sheimy of the University of Calgary Geomatics Engineering Department has developed an important new tool for fighting forest fires from the air. According to the associate professor, in less than a year’s time firefighters should be able to use the high-tech system to detect hidden "hot spots" and greatly increase firefighting accuracy.

The Aerial Mobile Mapping System is comprised of several components. In concert, they present aircraft pilots with real-time images of heat patterns in the forest below. According to Dr. El-Sheimy, one significant challenge for his research team was to sift through the variety of modern techniques and equipment and to optimize communication between them.

"Most of the [AMMS] is existing technology. We choose the pieces that work for us," he explained.

The components of the AMMS include a wide-range GPS receiver, a thermal camera that detects a very specific band of infrared radiation, and a lightweight inertial system which help compensate for motion of the aircraft.

"The whole idea of the project is to put things together and make them work toward certain applications," said Dr. El-Sheimy. "Definitely, one of the challenges for such a project is to put all of the equipment together, synchronize it, and to get the images captured and processed in real-time."

Dr. El-Sheimy is currently negotiating the conditions of a controlled test of the system with university administration. The purpose of these tests, planned for early July, is to evaluate the actual performance of the system, but Dr. El-Sheimy does not foresee any significant problems.

"The critical parts of the system have been tested," he said. "So far, the parts that we have developed are definitely working, but we have yet to test the monitoring of how the hot spots propagate in time. This is the part that may require further work, but at least we will have something that reports [information] about locations of hot spots in forest fires as an initial phase."

Dr. El-Sheimy expressed appreciation of Petro Canada and the Calgary Herald’s support of his initial work on the project. The two corporations awarded him with the 1998 Young Innovator Award for his research proposal, entitled "Keeping Canada Green: A Real-Time Integrated Navigation and Imaging System for Managing Forest Fires."

AMMS is the most recent in a chain of developments by Dr. El-Sheimy’s team. His research group is responsible for two previous generations of MMS technology, including a camera-studded van able to make land-based thermal observations and a portable backpack MMS which is also near completion.

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