Calgary lab utilizes drones to better understand wildfires

MRU Environment Science Technologist Shane Steininger explains how the different sensors work on a drone. Tracy Nagai / Global News

As wildfires already begin to threaten Alberta communities this season, a cutting edge lab in Calgary hopes drones will help researchers better understand these devastating blazes.

“In Alberta, more than two-thirds of the fires are human caused, whether that’s malicious or accidental,” said Dr. Gwen O’Sullivan, the vice-dean of research and scholarship with the Faculty of Science and Technology at Mount Royal University (MRU).

O’Sullivan investigates both urban fires and wildfires at the Environmental Forensics and Arson Lab at MRU, trying to determine if a fire was human caused.

“Our work is really about developing techniques and applications that can be used by investigators to help increase the conviction rates for arson,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got a huge array of equipment that allows us to analyze contaminants in the environment and that’s important because we’re looking at environmental liability.”

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One tool that is now being utilized is drones, outfitted with high-tech cameras and sensors to study wildfires and the smoke wildfires produce.

“We’ve all experienced wildfire smoke in an urban community, where you’ve got that itchy, scratchy feeling, or your asthma or health condition has been exasperated,” O’Sullivan said. “We want to understand more about what that organic component of wildfire smoke is, so we can better characterize it for human health risk.”

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The different cameras attached to the drone include a thermal camera which can help detect hotspots.

“For all intents and purposes it’s the same camera they would have up in the Calgary Police Service (CPS) helicopter,” MRU Environmental Science Technologist Shane Steininger said. “You’d be able to point (the camera) at a spot and know how hot it is.”

Click to play video: 'How small sensors and AI are being used to detect wildfires early'
How small sensors and AI are being used to detect wildfires early

O’Sullivan said a light detection and ranging camera, or LiDAR, will also help assist investigators and land managers.

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“The beauty of LiDAR is that we can get an idea of the density and types of vegetation and that’s something that’s really relevant for combustion for wildfires,” she explained.

Low cost sensors can also be attached to the drones and take smoke samples to detect the risk for people in nearby communities.

“Each of these fires is hundreds of thousands of acres and you never know which is going to be the next dangerous one,” Steininger said. “We’re kind of at the epicentre of where this problem is.”

Officials across Canada have been warning of an early and severe start to wildfire season and O’Sullivan and her team hope Albertans will take them seriously.

“I think it’s really important that people heed the warnings,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re going to have a very dry summer and so we need to be careful about the kind of activities that we’re doing.

“We need to be conscious about the risk of causing a fire because nobody wants to be responsible for something like that.”

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