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Wi-Fi Network Could Help Detect Forest Fires

Researchers in Australia test sensors to detect forest fires and broadcast the findings to the world.

Fire/Crisis Media Revolution/Photo copyright iStockphoto
Photo copyright iStockphoto
Photo copyright iStockphoto
Australian researchers from Edith Cowan University’s Centre for Communications Engineering Research hope to deploy a large test of wireless sensors that detect forest fires and broadcast the results to the world.

Professors Daryoush Habibi, Iftekhar Ahmad and Amro Qandour wrote their own mesh networking software and built the sensors connected to them. They conducted an initial test of the sensor network in Perth in fall 2011, the first of possibly numerous demonstrations aimed to show the research and disaster management community that they’re onto something.

The university team’s system employs an array of sensors that detect the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels found in forest fires. They’re linked to an 802.11n Wi-Fi network that can broadcast findings to researchers or the general public via Twitter or on the Internet. The sensors, Waspmote nodes, are customizable units that are roughly palm-sized and can be mounted on trees.

The sensors can be adjusted to detect up to 16 different types of environmental factors, including gas levels, atmospheric pressure, humidity and temperature. However, a single sensor can handle only about a handful of those at once, so multiple sensors would be necessary to detect a wide range of factors.

“A number of sensors can be used, and it depends on how sensitive you want the system to be,” Ahmad said.

Habibi told The Register that current remote sensors have a line-of-site range of about 500 feet, or up to about 15 feet without line of site. The professors developed media access control software for their sensors.

The Australian researchers performed their Perth test trial after igniting a fire inside a glass chamber in a forest. The university is located in the same region, and the test site was small, so the testing was a simple affair for the researchers. It was an ideal option in an area prone to bushfires where authorities are vigilant against disaster.

“People here are really skeptical, particularly the fire authorities,” Ahmad said. “Unless they’re 200 percent sure, they’re not going to allow us to play with anything.”

The Edith Cowan University scientists are working to deploy larger tests in the future with more government and industry support. They’re in talks with corporate groups, the names of which Ahmad declined to name, and if these entities get onboard, he hopes their involvement will prompt the government to support the work.

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.