Satellite technology is racing to outpace the increasingly common wildfires that threaten lives, destroy property and create pollution that causes long-term health problems.
More than 3.7 million acres of land in the United States have already burned this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, nearly double the average over the past decade.
A changing climate is helping to lengthen wildfire seasons. One of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history started on December 30, unusually late in the year for the state.
“No one expects to have a forest fire in the middle of winter,” notes Mike Kaplan, a Colorado resident and recently appointed vice president of business development at satellite maker LeoStella.
But as wildfires progress, so does satellite technology to fight them. A new breed of commercial Earth observation operators is taking advantage of historically low start-up costs, promising governments and other customers cheaper and more up-to-date images with better resolutions.
These images can help firefighters by giving them strategic insights that can be difficult to get from drones and airplanes in high winds and other dangerous conditions.
And especially in the U.S., Kaplan says, governments are increasingly turning to commercial small satellite platforms to take over missions they used to provide.
LeoStella is partially owned by Earth imaging operator BlackSky and manufactures satellites for the company. Among BlackSky’s wildfire-related services are artificial intelligence solutions that automatically detect changes in buildings and infrastructure, helping with insurance or damage assessment.
Meanwhile, German startup OroraTech is planning a small satellite constellation dedicated to forest fire monitoring.
FOREST-1, OroraTech’s first satellite equipped with thermal, mid-infrared and RGB cameras, was launched aboard the Spire nanosatellite in January.
“We will launch the next eight satellites by the end of 2023, which will allow us to provide information to our customers during peak afternoon burn times where no data is currently available,” said OroraTech CEO Thomas Grübler.
“In the next few years, we will achieve a detection time of 30 minutes globally with our entire satellite constellation.”
Gruebler said OroraTech’s next payload is scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2023, also aboard the Spire satellite.
While demand for satellite-enabled bushfire services is growing among government customers, Northern Sky Research senior analyst Prachi Kawade says it will “remain a very small part” of the wider market.
Kawade says it mostly forms a small part of what he classifies as the “non-imaging” segment of the Earth observation industry.
This segment includes capabilities including infrared and thermal imaging and is projected to grow from $34 million in 2020 to $1.5 billion in 2030.
In contrast, she said the total Earth observation market will expand from $3.5 billion to $8.8 billion over the same decade.
Satellites also play an important role in forest fire prevention. Technology provider Hitachi Energy announced a solution in May to help utilities prevent wildfires using artificial intelligence and imaging satellites from Maxar Technologies.
Almost 90% of wildfires are caused by human activity, which is unpredictable and often unpreventable, says Jeff Pauska, director of digital products for Hitachi Energy.
Accidental human-caused fires can include shooting at a transformer, stealing copper from a utility pole, or driving an all-terrain vehicle into dry grasslands.
However, Pauska says its Hitachi Vegetation Manager solution targets the root cause of preventable fires in the utility sector: Vegetation near power lines.
About 25 percent of all outages in the United States are caused by vegetation, according to Hitachi Energy, costing the nation’s economy $37.5 billion and the utility industry $4.3 billion in lost revenue in 2021.
The Dixie fire, the second largest wildfire in California history, was sparked last year when power lines came into contact with a tree. Since 2015, power lines have caused six of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California.
Hitachi’s solution allows utilities to survey their entire territory to automatically confirm line gaps, minimizing the need for truck and helicopter trips.
Although human activity is the leading cause of wildfires, those caused by other means also have different risk profiles.
“Most higher voltage transmission and distribution corridors carry load in mostly rural areas with low fuel moisture, wild grasslands” that are difficult to access, Pauska adds.
Meanwhile, human activity usually takes place in a controlled environment, near suppression equipment and places that are easier to reach during emergencies.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.