Remote Sensing and Wildfires

Tools that make a difference

Monday 2 November saw the opening session of RS Fire 2020: The Remote Sensing & Wildland Fire Symposium Series, an event run by the Pacific Southwest Region (PSWR) of ASPRS. There are four two-hour sessions on the first four Mondays of November. 335 have registered, including 180 are students, of whom 19 have signed up to become members of ASPRS. Remarkably, 26 registrants were outside the US, from Australia, Canada, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, Spain, France, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Croatia, India, Portugal, Sweden, and Uruguay. Wow! Whereas a face-to-face meeting of Pacific Southwest Region, if it were held in the Bay Area, would attract 50 people from San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Sacramento and Silicon Valley, the virtual format attracts a global audience. The sheer, tragic topicality of wildfires is as much the draw as the technology, which includes various remote sensing approaches.

After an introduction by Prof. Omar Mora (Cal Poly Pomona; president of ASPRS PSWR), the event was chaired by Krista West, a PhD candidate in the SDSU/UCSB joint program. She describes herself as a “pyrogeographer” (@RSFireNerd). Frankly, there wasn’t too much lidar in the first session, but the three speakers were all very good indeed, providing cogent presentations with thought-provoking content: Brittany Zajic (Planet), Captain Chris Vestal (Sacramento Metropolitan Fire – SMF) and Dr. Joaquin Ramirez (Technosylva). In the Q&A after Brittany’s presentation, the complementarity of satellite imagery and lidar was duly acknowledged. Chris’s description of SMF underlined the scale of modern firefighting, in terms not only of numbers of firefighters, but the amount of technology deployed: SMF, for example, has two helicopters and 18 UAVs equipped with FLIR sensors. Joaquin described the complex, successful software tools that Technosylva has developed to help firefighters, utilities and other clients master an outbreak.

Next came short presentations by sponsors. Dr. David Marvin, founder and CEO of Salo Sciences, gave an insight into his company’s analytics, focused on mapping, modeling and planning of ecosystems, especially the California Fire Observatory and Tree Mortality Mapping projects. Lidar is a critical input to these analytics, where it is combined with other data and used in sophisticated AI algorithms. He was followed by David Brown, CEO of Terra Remote Sensing, a Canadian geospatial services company with offices in the US and Latin America. Terra specializes in generating synergistic products using a variety of sensors, making heavy use of helicopter-borne lidar. Terra’s customers are a diverse group, some of which use the company’s products for vegetation management, for example for wildfire amelioration and removal of airport obstructions. These presentations rounded out the session and the open discussion at the end was interesting. We were returned to earth, amidst all the wonderful geospatial impedimenta, by the stark reality that fire department commanders are saturated with technology: they need tools that make a difference, with clear, comprehensible advantages.

The grisly statistics of the appalling growth of wildfires, in terms of numbers of fires, acres, casualties and structures destroyed, kept appearing on the screen. We hope that the technologies presented at the Symposium – and the capability of the geospatial community to work with firefighters to ensure that they are used to best advantage – are contributions to reducing the number and extent of outbreaks and the effectiveness of combating the menace. I’m writing this in southern California, during the first significant rain for more than five months. The threat will be with us every year for the foreseeable future.

One of the heartening aspects of the Symposium is that PSWR is using the proceeds from registration and sponsorships to fund student scholarships. We hope that it won’t be too long before students can use these to travel to conferences, present their work, learn from others and network towards fruitful futures in the geospatial community. It’s worth registering, even if you’ve missed the first or second in the series.

In my previous column here, I summarized a webinar by Leica Geosystems. This week it was the turn of SBG Systems, a French GNSS/IMU supplier with subsidiaries in California and Singapore. “UAV survey: smooth workflow with inertial + PPK” was presented by CTO Alexis Guinamard and chief software architect Raphaël Siryani. The event was organized by Commercial UAV News, which is operated by Diversified Communications. The webinar provided descriptions of the company’s Ellipse Series and Quanta Series hardware products and Qinertia software. Sure, this was a company product pitch, but it was short, professional and well done. There are so many online events competing for our attention that they have to be good. SBG Systems was. Très agréable.

What’s next? ASPRS is spoiling us with good stuff these days. As the PSWR Symposium continues, the Society’s Eastern Great Lakes Region (Michigan, Ohio, western Pennsylvania – where have I been hearing about these places recently?) is running a free event on 12 November, “What’s next in mapping”. The program is packed with lidar, from AVs to national topographic and topobathymetric programs. It’s wide-ranging, with nine presentations in an afternoon. Enjoy!

UPDATE (11/16/20): The second installment of the ASPRS Pacific Southwest Region “Remote Sensing & Wildland Fire Symposium”, on 9 November, provided presentations by Cal Fire, L3 Harris, and University of California Davis, but the week’s online stormer was laid on by ASPRS Eastern Great Lakes Region, a three-and-a-half hour feast on 12 November. Nine fine presentations were moderated by Region president Dr. Shawana Johnson (Global Marketing Insights) on the theme, “What’s New in Mapping?” Speakers from Allvision IO, CivicMapper/PAMAGIC, Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) and L3Harris focused on AV-related topics. Speakers from USGS and Dewberry covered the 3DEP program, then the last session had two speakers from MTRI (yes, again – they’re good!) and US Army Corps of Engineers on hydrographic mapping. ASPRS President, Jeff Lovin (Woolpert), gave closing remarks to wind up a truly memorable session. Unfortunately, the attendance never got above 70, mainly because, as I have remarked here several times before, there are simply too many online opportunities these days in our lidar world – we just can’t get to them all. The EGLR afternoon, however, had plenty of lidar content – both data acquisition and applications, so we’re talking to EGLR about publishing some of these articles during 2021.

Indeed, owing to a clash, I was disappointed to miss a webinar for which I had enrolled – “Accurate Geospatial Intelligence from Drone Imagery with Esri & DJI” on 10 November. This sounded rather promising – a combined effort from two firms that are giants in their fields of GIS software and UAV manufacture respectively. I’m chasing after the recording.

As always, I recommend combing your e-mails and selecting those online events that suit your interests best. Don’t try to be comprehensive – make a choice and enjoy. You’ll almost certainly come away with new knowledge and thinking. And you’ll be impressed with the innovation that’s going on despite the pandemic restricting our mobility. It now looks as if covid will be disrupting our lives for quite a while, so we should all prepare to be of maximum value when the time comes for us to leave hibernation. We also take our hats off to those who are not staying at home for the duration but have to go out to earn their livings. The flight crews of the surveying and mapping companies spring to mind, but there are many others. And we should also thank the IT wizards in innumerable geospatial companies who enable large proportions of their workforces to be productive from home. We appreciate what you are doing.

About the Author

Dr. A. Stewart Walker

Stewart is the Managing Editor of the magazine. He holds MA, MScE and PhD degrees in geography and geomatics from the universities of Glasgow, New Brunswick and Bristol, and an MBA from Heriot-Watt. He is an ASPRS-certified photogrammetrist. More articles...