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U.S. Forest Service Explores RFID's Ability to Detect Fires

The agency's San Dimas Technology Development Center headed up a test burn in California that demonstrated how a system using RFID temperature sensors could support an early and rapid response to wildfires, thereby saving lives and reducing damage.
By Laurie Sullivan
Sep 01, 2010Brush fires occur all too often in Southern California. Dry brush and high winds from the desert can quickly escalate a spark from a campfire into a deadly inferno that sweeps across coastal rolling hills and inland towns covered in dry, brittle brush. So it makes perfect sense that the U.S. Forest Service, the agency's San Dimas Technology Development Center, and the Los Angeles County Fire Department wanted to test an RFID-supported platform that could provide early-warning signals in the event of a fire. To that end, the group conducted a controlled early-detection burn test last month, focused on bulldozers and shrubs on site in Castaic, a community in California's Los Angeles County.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Technology Development Center set out to mimic a high-intensity wildfire engulfing bulldozers in flames, on land owned by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. The group wanted to test a burn-over—that is, when an object becomes engulfed in flames—in order to determine the best scenario for this critical situation. The project tested two types of bulldozers—enclosed and open cab—monitoring both inside and outside temperatures, along with gasses omitted from burning plastics, to determine the best place for survival in the event that firefighters get caught in a blaze. When fighting a conflagration, bulldozer operators clear a section of forest to create what is called a fire line. When the wind shifts, it can put an operator in danger.

Sensible Solutions' wireless forest-fire sensors attach to tree branches.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department helped to conduct the test, allowing the fire to burn for 30 minutes to an hour before cleaning up the burn site.

ProximaRF provided the ProxFire Detection System (PFDS), an integrated solution aimed at detecting wildfires, and worked with IT logistics firm Naniq Systems to implement a platform that monitors fires as they occur. RTSync Corp., which develops advanced modeling and simulation methodology and software/hardware environments, identified the placement of sensors for the test. The company is a commercial spin-off of the Arizona Center for Integrative Modeling and Simulation, operated by the University of Arizona and Arizona State University.

The PFDS solution is designed to support early and rapid response protocols, to save lives and reduce environmental and property damage. The system operates on a sensor-gateway network consisting of RFID-based 433 MHz sensors from Sensible Solutions Sweden AB, as well as a gateway to receive the RF signals transmitted by the sensors.

In the absence of a fire, the sensor remains dormant and functions as a passive RFID tag. But if the temperature reaches 170 degrees Fahrenheit (77 degrees Celsius) from a developing fire, the sensor activates and uses its battery power to transmit a signal encoded with a unique identification number to a PFDS wireless gateway in range of the signal, which relays the alarm to the ProximaRF software, which can then be accessed via the Internet at a central location, such as an operations center for forest-fire response and management. The gateway transmits its location (thanks to a built-in GPS receiver), as well as a timestamp and the sensor's ID number. The RFID sensors support a 3,000-meter (9,843-foot) transmission read range to the gateway. If not burned, a sensor's battery will operate for approximately three years.

"My concern is that it can be several years before a fire occurs in a particular area, so if we put the sensors in that area, will they still work if the sensors need batteries?" says Ralph Gonzales, the San Dimas Technology Development Center's fire program leader. "Science Tomorrow has a similar system they claim is passive and sends a signal once it reaches a certain temperature."

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