University of Melbourne, UC San Diego Collaborate on Wildfire Detection, Warning
San Diego, Calif., Aug. 10, 2012 — Researchers from Australia’s University of Melbourne and their partners at the University of California, San Diego, have received an Australian Research Council grant with total funding of $1.5 million to design and build resilient streaming sensor networks for emergency response.
The project, titled “RISER: Resilient Information Systems for Emergency Response,” will incorporate a system of decentralized sensor networks to better withstand temporary or permanent failures within the network during a disaster. The research will be developed hand-in-hand with funding partners including IBM, Victoria Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley, and the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment.
The impetus for the research is the ongoing threat of wildfires in both San Diego County and Victoria (the Australian state where the University of Melbourne is located), which are both prone to drought and have dense forests of highly combustible vegetation. Large-scale wildfires devastated San Diego most recently in 2003 and 2007, and Victoria in 2009, when the Black Saturday bushfires resulted in the deaths of 173 people.
“It’s amazing how much of an overlap there is between California and Victoria, not just in terms of universities, but in climatologically and in the threat of wildfires,” said Allison Kealy, Senior Lecturer in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Infrastructure Engineering.
The grant will allow first responders to access dynamic environmental data that were previously unavailable in real-time. This includes experimenting with algorithms for aggregating the data and developing a distributed cyberinfrastructure that delivers the data to those making decisions in the field. The resulting live information system testbed will allow first responders to evaluate the technical, social, institutional and operational components of disaster response.
This grant leverages expertise and lessons learned by researchers at UC San Diego. In collaboration with San Diego Gas & Electric and San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) have been developing technologies to help mitigate wildfires in the County since 2007. Calit2 has customized its suite of large-scale, high-resolution displays for data visualization and modeling of wildfires, and Calit2 academic participant Hans-Werner Braun, a research scientist with SDSC and Director of the High-Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN), has harnessed his existing network of remote sensors in San Diego’s backcountry for wildfire identification and response.
The HPWREN system of sensors, originally funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is operated by SDSC with financial support from a diverse community of scientific researchers, public safety agencies and industrial partners. The system has supported large-scale firefighting operations by connecting numerous first-responder sites, as well as providing ad-hoc data connectivity and sensor data for eight Incident Command Posts in the region.
“I am glad people (across nations) are talking and investigating the opportunity spaces in this grant,” said HPWREN’s Braun, “so we actually can get to fire mitigation.”
“Californian and Victorian firefighters are often unable to know where the fire perimeters are traveling in firestorms,” added Jessica Block, a staff research associate with Calit2. “This project addresses data needs at many levels. It not only works to install and wirelessly stream weather sensors, but also to develop a system that can withstand failures – a function that will be a key demonstrator for infrastructure around the world. ”
Bill Moran, Research Director of the Defence Science Institute (DSI), a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), noted that the “cross-Pacific funding will enable the research collaboration between our universities to be a much tighter one.
“Our collective effort will continue to span data capture, analysis, modeling and visualization,” added Moran, “and we’re keen to explore and develop further capabilities to help us aid first-responders with their decision-making.”
The award comes on the heels of a recent workshop held in the UC San Diego division of Calit2. Faculty from several academic departments at UC San Diego, the University of Melbourne, and the University of León in Spain – including Moran and Calit2 director Larry Smarr – met with representatives of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to discuss the intersection of “ecology and technology” as it pertains to early detection and warning systems for fighting fires.
Although researchers in Australia have contributed their own breakthroughs to early detection and warning measures for fighting fires – particularly in the area of fire modeling – Kevin Tolhurst, an associate professor of Forest and Ecosystem Science at the University of Melbourne, noted at the workshop that the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission “has called for more forward-looking research.” The Commission has shown interest in expanding its existing network of sensors to a system as robust as HPWREN, but perhaps with the added advantage of culling data from users of geo-located mobile devices. (HPWREN operates primarily in remote backcountry areas where mobile data coverage is spotty and/or of insufficient bandwidth to be of great utility.)
Calit2’s Block, who organized the workshop, said that the two research groups eventually plan to “co-locate custom sensors in both regions for comparative analysis and will also combine the best of both sensor boxes into one super-sensor box that will collect a variety of meteorological and environmental data.”
“The way forward with this collaboration is to look at lessons learned from the strategic planning process and operational implementation,” added Smarr. “We can then improve the quality of the input data we’re working with, decide how to represent uncertainty when data are not sufficient, and use our increasing opportunities for collaboration and exchange to address critical research needs.
“Wildfire modeling is still the bedrock for this type of research, but these dense sensornets and other new techniques are going to enable us to make some significant leaps.”
Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, firstname.lastname@example.org