Central Oregon Daily▶️ Using AI to sniff out wildfires: smart smoke detectors tested in...

▶️ Using AI to sniff out wildfires: smart smoke detectors tested in Oregon

▶️ Using AI to sniff out wildfires: smart smoke detectors tested in Oregon

▶️ Using AI to sniff out wildfires: smart smoke detectors tested in Oregon

Along the Leaburg Canal next to the Mckenzie River, Elyas Bianchi and Nick Maggio are out to check on some tech.

“We really wanted to focus on the woodland urban interface,” said Maggio.

The duo, from the Oregon Hazards Lab out of the University of Oregon are working on a cutting-edge project to solve a pressing problem, sniffing out wildfires.

“Really you could call them smoke detectors for the outdoors,” said Maggio, the assistant director of wildfire technologies at the Oregon Hazards Lab.

“Yeah very fancy smoke detectors,” added Bianchi, a field technician with the Oregon Hazards Lab.

“Early detection is key. Getting to these fires before they become big fires is the name of the game,” said Maggio.

In the game of wildfire detection, these devices mounted on a pole could be the next all-star players.

“The bottom one is from the company N5 and the top one is from the company Breeze,” said Bianchi.

“The real novel thing here is the addition of the AI and the cloud that these companies are bringing to the project,” explained Maggio.

Yes, you read that right, he said artificial intelligence.

“AI for good,” added Maggio.

The little boxes are basically digital noses.

“Air quality sensors that send data to the cloud and in the cloud they run proprietary AI algorithms against that data to try and detect if there’s wildfire smoke at the sensor,” said Maggio.

The system then notifies first responders via text and email alerts.

“They’re supposedly smart enough to be able to distinguish between things like campfires, cigarettes,” said Bianchi.

“Is it just a bad air quality day or am I next to a road with a lot of diesel trucks going by or is this really wildfire smoke? And specifically wildfire smoke that I’m detecting and not say chimney smoke or campfire smoke,” Maggio went on to explain.

It’s all about collecting and interpreting data, which is not a new task for the Hazards Lab.

Standing next to seismographic equipment in a locked metal box along the canal Bianchi said, “We have over two hundred Shake Alert sites in Oregon.”

High atop Prince Lucien Campbell Hall on the U of O campus in Eugene, 37 miles to the west of those smoke sensors along the canal, Bianchi shows off another of the Hazards Lab’s tools, a wildfire detection camera.

“Once you move video data any other data is easy peasy to move,” says Professor Doug Toomey, director of the Oregon Hazards Lab.

Data like an analysis of what the little boxes ‘breathe’.

The Oregon Hazards Lab’s roots are in seismographs, they are partners in the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and Shake Alert.

“We realized the networks we were building out for real time acquisition of seismic data could be built in such a way to provide real time data acquisition for all different types of multi hazards.”

Their communications network to detect earthquakes led to the installation of cameras to spot wildfires, and now sniff for smoke.

“Doing the obvious, turning our focus to multi hazards we became visible to other partners throughout the US.” 

Their work popped up on the Department of Homeland Security’s radar, in a good way.

“They have worked with a tech incubator called Tech Nexus who has been evaluating different chemically based, air quality-based smoke detectors,” added Maggio.


smoke sensors


The Science and Technology Directorate under DHS enlisted the help of the lab, tapping into their vast array of seismographs and cameras to run a side by side comparison of two different devices at 15 locations sited mostly in Western Oregon.

The goal to see, “How good they are at sniffing fires,” said Bianchi, who oversaw installation of the sensors earlier this year.

Calling the technology “plug and play,” Bianchi and the team at the Hazard’s Lab choose sites where they already had infrastructure in place.

One of the sites managed by the Eugene Water and Electric Board is along the Mckenzie, just down river from the devastating 2020 Holiday Farm Fire.

The self-contained sensors are similar in size, running off a small solar panel and sending data to the cloud via a cell signal.

N5 is a Maryland based company, Breeze Technologies is located in Berlin, Germany. Both were tested last year in California.

“We’re really keen to evaluate and develop these technologies that can be used in these remote locations to detect fire quickly,” said Maggio.

“After this summer they’ll have a lot of data to support whether that can actually happen,” added Bianchi.

Toomey, the lab director, sees sensors as part of a bigger picture, “My hope is that the 30 sensors we have out right now for AI enabled smoke detection is a steppingstone to many hundreds of sensors to watch the weather and air quality throughout Oregon.”

Sensors that could help us navigate the climate crisis by taking a device found in all our homes and making it smarter all in an effort to avert disaster.

“That’s our goal, it’s really to provide wildfire protection in places where it’s not nonexistent or could use some bolstering,” said Maggio.

“I was born and raised in Eugene, and I’m definitely very acutely aware of the problem we have,” said Bianchi.

As wildfires threaten communities around the country and the globe, this new method of early detection could keep the outdoors smelling more like a forest than a forest fire.


 Last summer we took a look at the various ways land managers detect wildfires around Central Oregon, links to those stories are listed below.

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