Can we use new technologies to predict, detect and fight wildfires?

A man watches a wildfire in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

Climate change has brought greater and more frequent weather extremes in recent years. which has led to intense storms, flash floods, droughts, and ravaging wildfires. Wildfires in particular have become a global phenomenon, breaking out more frequently and with more ferocity in countries across the world – and it’s likely that the number and intensity of these wildfires will continue to increase due to climate change.

A recent study from Nesta Challenges, which designs challenge prizes that help solve pressing societal problems that currently lack solutions, found that environmental challenges are one of the most important societal issues that the UK faces today, with climate change seen as a national concern.

The study canvassed 2,200 Brits, including young teenagers right through to the elderly, to determine their views on society today. Interestingly, under 16s and those aged 65+ are the most likely to consider environmental challenges as the most important issue we currently face (67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively).

When forests and other natural environments which actively store carbon are burned, they release huge amounts of CO2 in a very short time. Wildfires have a significant and immediate impact on human health by lowering air quality and will have longer term impacts on mental health if natural calming spaces become rarer and more difficult to access. Wildfires leave devastation in their wake; destroying wildlife habitats and leaving behind long-lasting changes on the ground.

There are also huge costs associated with the combat and clean-up of wildfires. In the US, $3.5bn was spent on fighting wildfires in California alone in 2018, and over the last decade, fire suppression costs in Canada have ranged from about $500m to $1bn a year. Current fire management techniques are expensive and put human resources at risk: Nesta Challenges believes tech and innovation can play a vital role in bringing new solutions to decelerate climate change and mitigate its impacts, support the preservation of biodiversity and environments, while safeguarding human health. In fact, 60 per cent of people questioned for the Nesta Challenges study said that new and emerging technologies have the potential to be used for social good.


There are a number of new technological solutions emerging using artificial intelligence, data management, robotics and high-resolution mapping software that can help to prevent wildfires. An example of such technology is WIFIRE from the University of California San Diego, which was designed to predict a wildfire’s path in real time. Currently used by a handful of California fire departments, it is being tested in more than 100 other jurisdictions.

However, at present these existing solutions are mainly limited to tools that help firefighters combat wildfires on the ground. In order to leverage technological innovation we must be visionary, imagining new frontiers which though implausible today, help unlock creativity and progress. Cast your mind into the future and imagine a world where human beings no longer risk their lives to fight dangerous fires. Instead swarms of fire suppression drones fill the sky, sensing and adapting automatically to subtle shifts in the wind, able within mere seconds to detect the direction a fire is spreading or even use AI to predict where the fire will move, and contain it.

Another future might hold roving lighting rods, which roam through lightening hot spots serving to attract and neutralise lightning bolts, perhaps even storing the charge and translating it to a source of clean energy.

Imagine forest surveillance bots that have the technology to scan forest conditions (the undergrowth, debris, and overall dryness) to detect high-probability outbreak areas and then deploy teams of service bots to remediate the area, thus neutralising the threat of a fire.

The thought experiment could go on, and although most ideas won’t be feasible, the work of innovators is to spot those unique opportunities where something visionary can transform into reality. What we know is that the pace of innovation can be accelerated and fostered effectively. Challenge Prizes attract innovators and enhance their solutions by creating incentives, such as the opportunity to receive cash prizes, engage in accelerator programs, and gain unprecedented access to a network of key experts and organisations. Nesta Challenges is a leader in Challenge Prize methodology and works cross-sectorally, having developed and run Challenge Prizes across a myriad of areas from environment & energy, to financial and health sectors, to wellbeing and young people.

Climate change is a pressing issue of our time, and Nesta Challenges is looking at ways we can leverage Challenge Prizes to unearth game-changing solutions in the fight against climate change. We’re starting this process with an investigation into wildfires, to learn about the key issues, and importantly, the key gaps where technology and innovation are needed. If you are interested in contributing to or learning about this research, please contact us.

Liz Vossen is programme manager at Nesta Challenges at the innovation charity Nesta.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.