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Product, Service & Design Innovation
This Startup Could Spark a Revolution in Early-Wildfire Detection

“By detecting wildfires while they are still small, we stand a much better chance of stopping them before they cause too much damage — saving money, the environment and, ultimately, lives.” — Dryad Networks' Carsten Brinkschulte

2023 was another year of rampant wildfires, all over the planet. In recent years, more than 370 million hectares of land burn every year — releasing over 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Wildfires have become a major contributor of GHGs — even more than traffic (around 20 percent).

The climate crisis, along with rapid land-use change — especially, deforestation — is making wildfires more frequent and intense. According to the OECD, in the past 30 years, changes to our climate have doubled the total area of forest burned in the Western United States. Experts suggest the frequency of extreme fires will increase by further 14 percent by the end of this decade and by around 30 percent by 2050. Uncontrolled burning of forests not only decimates the world’s biggest natural carbon-capture-and-storage system; it also destroys habitats for critical biodiversity.

Then, there are the health impacts: Every year, more then 340,000 people die early as a result of wildfire-related air pollution — which causes a range of respiratory and cardiovascular issues.

Across Europe, wildfires contributed 20 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2023 — which is above the EU average for 2003-2022, and seriously affected tourist destinations. Large areas of the Greek islands, Sicily and the Algarve in Portugal were among the total of more than 460,000 hectares of land that burned last summer.

In the US, where six million homes are now considered uninsurable due to wildfire risk, the wildfire season was dominated by the catastrophic fires that devastated the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Such events are costing the US economy between $394-893 billion every year; California, alone, spends around $1.5 billion a year on fighting wildfires.

Early-warning systems are crucial

It is widely acknowledged that mitigating climate change and adapting to extreme wildfires must be tackled in tandem. Sustainable land use, effective forest management and fire management are increasingly included in national sustainable-development plans and climate-adaptation and -mitigation strategies. Some nations are proactively developing goals to protect forests as part of their wider climate targets, as set out in their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement.

And many countries are looking to improve early-warning systems through advanced technologies and science-based landscape- and forest-management strategies — using tech to monitor, detect and control fires, such as through remote sensing and real-time alarm systems. According to the UN, nations with “substantive-to-comprehensive early-warnings coverage” have a disaster-mortality rate eight times lower than those with limited coverage. Studies show that giving people even 24 hours’ notice of a heatwave coming could reduce the damage caused by around 30 percent. The Global Center for Adaptation says that investing $800 million on early-warning systems could save developing countries $3-16 billion a year in losses, annually.

Imperfect existing solutions

Traditionally, there have been three main ways we detect wildfires: watchtowers, cameras and satellites. Watchtowers, placed within forests and manned by individuals checking for smoke, have been used for a long time. While modern technology has now taken over this role, with AI-equipped cameras used to detect smoke and automatically signal the fire service, challenges remain. Usually, the smoke has to rise above the tree canopy to become visible — meaning the fire is already quite large by the time it has been detected.

Observational satellites — either geostationary, where the satellite is in a fixed location relative to Earth; or Low Earth Orbits (LEO), where the satellite moves relative to the Earth — can be effective in covering large areas of land and helping to predict the direction and route a wildfire might take. However, satellites have similar drawbacks. Geostationary satellites orbit the Earth from roughly 36,000 kilometers away. At this distance, fires must be very large before a satellite can detect it. And while LEO satellites are much closer to the ground, they are constantly on the move and only pass each area once every six hours, at most.

Proximity is key

A new startup claims to have developed an alternative, and much more effective way, to provide ultra-early detection of wildfires. Using solar-powered gas sensors connected to a large-scale internet-of-things (IoT) network, Dryad Networks can detect early wildfires, as well as the health and growth of forests.

“Gas sensors are a relatively new technological approach to wildfire detection, functioning like digital noses that can ‘smell’ a fire,” Carsten Brinkschulte, Dryad’s CEO and co-founder, tells Sustainable Brands®. “By detecting wildfires while they are still small, we stand a much better chance of stopping them before they cause too much damage — saving money, the environment and, ultimately, lives.”

Dryad positions gas sensors below tree canopies and uses AI to accurately detect smoke from fires — as opposed to fumes from vehicles, for example. The gas sensors are solar-powered, allowing them to be positioned anywhere and run for more than ten years without the need for an external power supply or battery swap.

“At less than $100 per sensor, they are the cheapest of the detection methods — in particular, for detecting human-induced wildfires,” Brinkschulte says. “Cameras cost around $120,000 to build, while satellites cost around $1.3 million to build and launch. Yes, a large number of sensors are required to create a network within a forest; but the overall protection cost is still very competitive when compared to other approaches.”

The disadvantage of gas sensors is their limited range in comparison to, say, satellites. One sensor is needed for each five hectares of woodland (more in high-risk areas). Gas sensors are, therefore, best suited to cover high-risk, high-value areas — places where people hike, camp or drive; or where power lines and railroad tracks lie — as well as anywhere else where fires have proven more common.

A multi-pronged approach

“There’s no silver bullet that will solve the growing wildfire crisis on its own,” Brinkschulte admits.

But combining multiple solutions at distances at which they’re most effective can create an optimal system, he adds.

“The advantages of one approach can be used to cancel out the disadvantages of another. Since most wildfires are caused by human activity, it makes sense to focus gas sensors on the areas of forest that come into most contact with people — which are the highest risk. Since these areas are relatively small, they can be effectively covered by gas sensors for ultra-early detection at a low cost … in the very areas where wildfires can wreak the most damage, owing to their proximity to humans and human infrastructure. This makes ultra-early detection especially important in an area where sensor-based approaches are far superior.”

By combining a number of approaches, the Dryad Networks team believes we can effectively manage the majority of wildfires before they become unmanageable. In the future, automated extinguishing machines — think drones carrying small buckets of water to the location of small fires — could also be added to the mix.

“Drones won’t be able to tackle large fires; so, early detection is crucial for their efficacy. Yet, if you have a fleet of automated drones directed by accurate ultra-early-detection systems, we could all but eliminate destructive wildfires for good.”