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Connect the dots | Wildfires are on the rise, but so is satellite technology

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Satellite technology races to stay ahead of the increasingly widespread wildfires that endanger lives, destroy property and cause pollution that causes long-term health problems.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the United States has already burned more than 3.7 million acres of land this year, nearly double the average over the past decade.

The changing climate is helping extend the wildfire season. One of the most devastating wildfires in Colorado’s history started on his December 30th.

“No one expected wildfires in the middle of winter,” says Mike Kaplan of Colorado.

But as wildfires progress, so does satellite technology to combat them. A new breed of commercial Earth observation operators promises to take advantage of historically low launch costs to provide governments and other customers with cheaper, more up-to-date imagery in better resolution.

These images support firefighters and provide them with strategic insights that are difficult to obtain from drones and planes in high winds and other dangerous situations.

The United States, in particular, is increasingly turning to commercial small-satellite platforms to carry out missions previously offered by governments, Kaplan said.

LeoStella is partly owned by the earth-imaging company BlackSky, for which it manufactures satellites. Among BlackSky’s wildfire services are artificial intelligence solutions that automatically detect changes in buildings and infrastructure to help with insurance and damage assessment.

Meanwhile, German startup OroraTech is planning a small satellite constellation dedicated to wildfire monitoring.

OroraTech’s first satellite, FOREST-1, equipped with an infrared, mid-infrared, and RGB camera, was launched in January aboard the Spire Nano satellite.

OroraTech CEO Thomas Grübler said:

“In the next few years, we plan to achieve 30-minute detection times worldwide across the satellite constellation.”

OroraTech’s next payload is scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2023 and will also be onboard the Spire satellite, Grübler said.

While there is growing demand for satellite-enabled WildFire services among government customers, Prachi Kawade, senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, said it “remains a very small part” of the wider market. says.

Kawade said it accounts for most of what is classified as the “non-imaging” segment of the Earth observation industry.

This segment, which includes capabilities such as infrared and thermal imaging, is projected to grow from $34 million in 2020 to $1.5 billion in 2030.

In contrast, the overall Earth observation market will grow from $3.5 billion to $8.8 billion over the same decade, he said.

disaster prevention

Satellites also play an important role in forest fire prevention. Technology provider Hitachi Energy in May unveiled a solution that uses artificial technology and imaging satellites from Maxar Technologies to help power companies prevent wildfires.

Nearly 90% of wildfires are caused by unpredictable and often unpreventable human activity, said Jeff Pauska, director of digital products at Hitachi Energy.

Accidental human fires include someone shooting a transformer, stealing copper from a utility pole, or riding an all-terrain vehicle in a dry prairie.

But Pauska says the Hitachi Vegetation Manager solution addresses vegetation near power lines, a leading cause of preventable fires in the utilities sector.

About 25% of all blackouts in the U.S. are caused by vegetation, costing the national economy $37.5 billion and the utility industry $4.3 billion by 2021, according to Hitachi Energy.

The Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in California’s history, started last year when a power line touched a tree. Since 2015, power lines have caused six of California’s 20 most devastating wildfires.

Hitachi’s solution allows utilities to survey entire areas and automatically confirm line clearances, minimizing the need for truck and helicopter trips.

Human activity is the main cause of wildfires, but those caused by other means also have different risk profiles.

“Most transmission and high-voltage distribution corridors carry loads to difficult-to-access, mostly rural, fuel-poor, pristine grasslands,” adds Pauska.

Human activity, on the other hand, tends to occur in controlled environments, near restraint devices, and in places that are easily accessible in an emergency.

This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.