The map of Australia on fire, pictures of smoke and fire behind cityscapes, images of brave men and women rescuing koalas, videos of helicopters and airplanes battling the flames from above: these pictures dominated our news feeds and our minds during Australia’s bush fire season in 2019/2020. Many sat at home and opened their wallets, desperate to find a way they could help. Jacobo Domingo Gill, COO and Co-founder at Robotto told me that he distinctly remembers the “footage of civilians getting trapped in flames, seeing their houses burned, and having to escape to the beaches.” In addition to this destruction, biodiversity was affected as we saw the Koala habitats get destroyed and its species brought to the brink of extinction.
This same feeling of helplessness and a wish to do more was felt among many of us in the tech community. We looked at the tools firefighters had at their disposal and then at our technology and began a tireless finding useful applications for our technology to assist in the fight.
It’s essential to understand what’s been used in the past and why these tools were used when applying new use cases to existing technology. Assuming shiny new tech is the answer to our problems has been the pitfall of many in our industry. Here I endeavor to take you through some of the thoughts and observations we’ve made on our journey of bringing AI tech to the firefighting world.
From traditional to innovative
Traditional methods for fighting wildfires such as those in the 2019/2020 season are relatively low tech. They involve using water to push back flames from on the ground or in the air. Firefighters also use what is commonly known as burning out or backburning to halt the fire’s progression. The key issue with such methods is that they are reactionary- they work to control something that may have already grown out of control by the time their efforts come to fruition.
Some technology has made its way into the world of firefighting. The use of drones and satellite imagery has become a staple for many departments when battling large wildfires, but the implementation of smart, autonomous technology still lags.
In the 2019/2020 bush fire season, we found many examples of departments utilizing NASA images to determine the size and velocity of the fires. While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, the delay in images and the inability to determine the direction of the spread still puts firefighters on defense rather than offense- leaving them once again in a reactionary position, unable to utilize their resources efficiently.
Seeing those images pushed us at Robotto to understand the need for a product like AWRA that could help firefighters stay one step ahead in their fight and help reduce the impact forest fires have on biodiversity.
Prevention and an understanding of ecology
Sometimes it seems as if the only explanation for the increase in the number of wildfires is climate change. While this may be true to an extent, blaming this increase entirely on something we have little control over (beyond reducing carbon emissions, etc.) can be dangerous. Cristina Santin Nuno, Associate Professor of Biosciences at Swansea University, notes that blaming wildfire alone can be dangerous, citing that “it is very dangerous to think it is only climate change making fires worse at that can lead to people thinking ‘there is nothing we can do.’” (Theneweconomy.com) After the fires in California last year, many began to research this very question, is climate change solely to blame for this increase in devastation?
The answer was no. In many ways, our historical treatment of natural wildfires and modern inhabitation of fire-prone areas Is also to blame. On top of this, our way of analyzing firefighting is black and white. We think only in terms of controlling/fighting fires or prevention and leave little contemplation on how we as a society can work to give nature the ability to act while keeping our communities safe.
A new tide – looking towards the future.
As devastating as the fires were in Australia last year, the immense focus and passion that followed this disaster awoke a passion and raison d’être among those in the tech community, including us at Robotto. Institutions from NASA to private companies, including those in the startup community, began looking for ways to immediately impact their technology. Technologies such as satellites, artificial intelligence, and robotics all started finding ways to work to halt wildfires.
This energy is fantastic and is one I know well. Every time I walk into our offices (when COVID isn’t peaking, of course), I’m reminded of this passion and energy. But energy and willpower are, unfortunately, not enough when it comes to actualizing and integrating exciting new technologies. ‘
It’s essential that governments and communities work actively to implement new technologies and begin to think beyond either combating fires or preventing them, moving instead towards combining the two. Jacobo Domingo Gil, COO at Robotto noted that “a path also needs to be opened for technology to break into well-established industries like firefighting. To do this, we need regulation to advance at the same pace as innovation and help us integrate with the already established methods.”
While we perfect our technology, we have to work together with government and private contractors to find a way to implement Robotto’s unique tech to help move firefighting away from being solely reactionary or preventative, giving firefighters a tool that allows them to be in the right place at the right time, and be ahead of the fight.