Wildfires aren’t just happening more often: They’re also getting more calamitous. More than half of California’s most destructive wildfires have occurred in the past five years, according to NASA.
It’s a fact that keeps Congresswoman Anna Eshoo up at night.
“We’ve seen the damage, the tolls that it has taken on our state,” Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) told reporters on April 13. “And we have witnessed the tolls that it’s taken in different places in the country.”
Eshoo spoke to the press during a wildfire technology showcase hosted by NASA's Ames Research Center. She had just come from a roundtable discussion with fellow Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren and NASA officials. The group came together to talk about how NASA technology, in partnership with both the public and private sectors, can impact wildfire and disaster resilience.
“We need better and better science,” Eshoo said. “We need sophisticated tools to address this. We need the cooperation and the investment that comes from the private sector that is led (by) the investments that have been made by the public sector.”
Many of those private and public partners were at the showcase, along with the tools they’re developing to fight wildfires and other emergencies – or better yet, stop them from happening in the first place. Here are a few of the technologies being developed right here in Silicon Valley.
NASA: Dousing flames with drones
Drones are rapidly becoming a key piece of the fire response puzzle, and scientists at Ames are looking to accelerate that technology by tapping into NASA’s vast aeronautics resources.
Zach Roberts, chief of the Aeronautics Projects Office and part of NASA Ames’ Smart Mobility team, said drones can do “everything from building infrastructure inspection, up to using the thermal infrared cameras for detecting wildfires” – essentially serving as an eye in the sky instead of putting a human pilot’s life at risk during unsafe conditions.
Rain: ‘The thing that everyone prays for’
Alameda-based company Rain aims to make catastrophic wildfires in California a thing of the past.
“Essentially what we’re doing is enabling automated aircraft to join the fire fight,” said Ephraim Nowak, chief engineer at Rain. “Our company is called Rain – it’s the thing that everyone prays for when there’s a wildfire.”
The piece of technology that Rain brought to the April 13 showcase looked like a small white helicopter, but it packs a big punch when it comes to fire suppression: the unmanned aircraft can release water or fire retardant on fires in remote locations. Rain’s long term vision is to station its automated aircraft in high wildfire risk regions, so they’re never more than a few minutes away from potential ignitions. The company believes that a network of about 200 Rain Stations could end catastrophic wildfires in California by 2030.
“So if you think about it kind of like how fire sprinklers revolutionized firefighting against buildings, and cut down 95% of structure losses, we’re essentially building fire sprinklers for the forest,” Nowak said.
Aero Systems West and Komodo: Stopping fires before they start
Morgan Hill-based Komodo has developed liquid and powder products that put out flames more effectively than water. Right now, the company is developing a product that can be sprayed on the land and makes it resistant to catching fire.
“As the green hills start to dry up, and they become fuel,” explained Shawn Sahbari, president and CEO of Komodo. “You can put (the product) down in May or June, and it’ll last for the remainder of the year. And you can take a torch, and you won’t be able to burn it.”
That’s where Aero Systems West comes in. The San Martin-based company’s industrial drones that can fly for about 50 minutes without any weight, and about 20 minutes while carrying up to 70 pounds.
CTO Danny Neal brought the company’s largest drone to the showcase. He said that Aero Systems West is currently developing a spray rig that could attach to their drones, allowing it to distribute Komodo’s product onto the land via drone.
“This is a California problem, we’re a California technology company,” said Komodo CEO Sahbari. “So that’s what drives us every day.”
Menlo Park Fire District: Revolutionizing search and rescue
Private companies aren’t the only ones innovating: Local public agencies like the Menlo Park Fire District are using drones to keep the community safe.
Technical Operations Specialist Tom Owen said the fire district uses drones in various capacities, from heat mapping a structure fire to constructing aerial renderings of accident scenes.
Drones are also essential tools when making rescues. Owen recalled one incident where a local man purchased a kayak off Amazon, took it out into the Bay, and got stuck.
“He thought he knew where he was, but he was wrong,” said Owen. “I found him with the drone. I can put a dot on him and get the location of the dot, and give the dot to the battalion chief. He radioed the airboat, the airboat came and scooped him up, and everybody slept in their own bed that night.”
on Apr 20, 2023 at 2:31 pm
on Apr 20, 2023 at 2:31 pm
This is an excellent and well written article about a critical set of local technology initiatives and opportunities. To be clear, I believe Silicon Valley can still lead the way!
My thanks to Congresswomen Eshoo and Lofgren who care enough to try and help do something about it by working with NASA’s Deputy Director Pam Melroy (STS 92, 112, 120), Associate Administrator Bob Cabana (STS 41, 53, 112, 120) and the NASA Ames Team of Parimal Kopardeker (PK), Eugene Tu, Carol Carroll and Huy Tran, to name a few of those trying to make a difference here locally.
Prior to the technology display and press conference, I was involved with the executive roundtable where important discussions focused on bringing together NASA, congressional legislators, private Industry, philanthropy, academia and subject matter experts in Wildfire management, prevention, suppression and mitigation.
The main focus was to create and/or expand partnerships. By doing so, the hope is to make meaningful impacts that result in better Wildfire management, situational awareness and develop new tools through technology transfer and supporting private sector innovation.
A key component to this effort will be related to H.R. 9376 The National Drone and Air Advanced Mobility Initiative Act. We are quickly loosing our strategic advantage in what some are calling the “drone wars”. Meaning, it’s easier to develop this technology outside of Silicon Valley and the United States because of flight restrictions, ridiculous rules and an overall lack of support or help from our government.
If your interested, watch the recent congressional hearing on the bill. Web Link
My take away, NASA needs a greater share of the potential funding and more specificity should be written into fire service initiatives like grants for the purchase of drones and training for firefighters.
Retired Fire Chief
Menlo Park Fire Protection District