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How the Next Generation of Satellites May Help Battle Wildfires (Video)

"It’s going to get worse, just by the nature of how the climate’s changing.”

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

In a converted gas station on NASA’s Silicon Valley research center, a pair of startups are working together to democratize satellite data. In the process, they may also provide additional tools for battling the sorts of wildfires that have scorched California this year.

Aquila Space is building a fleet of satellites no bigger than briefcases that can each capture and send back images of more than 12 million square miles of Earth every day. Meanwhile, its partner Astro Digital is developing software tools that allow anyone to process and analyze the data, putting satellite capabilities usually reserved for large companies and the federal government into the hands of small businesses, developers and local agencies.

There are numerous potential business applications, including weather analysis, crop monitoring and carbon credit accounting. But the data could also help inform responses to ecological disasters, including earthquakes, droughts, floods and fires.

Watch the full video below:

The Valley, Butte, Tenaya and other California wildfires have burned hundreds of thousands of acres in the state so far this year, destroying hundreds of homes, displacing tens of thousands of residents and killing at least five. The destruction is well ahead of historic averages and there’s still plenty of time left in the fire season.

“This is not just this year,” warned Gov. Jerry Brown, who declared a state of emergency in recent days. “This is the future, from now on. It’s going to get worse, just by the nature of how the climate’s changing.”

This daunting new normal, which is coming to define large swaths of the western United States, underscores the need for new tools to combat the devastation.

 Firefighters monitor a backfire ahead of the Rocky Fire last month near Clearlake, Calif.
Firefighters monitor a backfire ahead of the Rocky Fire last month near Clearlake, Calif.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Forest and fire agencies already rely on a patchwork of satellite data, piecing together high-resolution images, heat maps and other information from DigitalGlobe, NASA’s Landsat program, SPOT, weather satellites and other sources, said Sean Triplett, who oversees geospatial programs for the U.S. Forest Service Fire & Aviation Program.

Satellites can also capture data beyond the visual spectrum, enabling researchers or responders to effectively see through smoke or detect the moisture level within forests.

Among other things, the information helps them spot areas at high risk of ignition, monitor the severity and range of fires, map and analyze retardant drops, and plan for restoration efforts in the aftermath.

Aquila generally can’t photograph Earth with as much detail as these larger government or commercial satellites, but by launching a greater number of tiny satellites, they believe they can offer faster and more frequent updates. The company plans to launch four satellites next year and another 12 in 2017, creating a constellation of orbiting hardware that can snap fresh pictures of almost anywhere each day.

The higher so-called temporal resolution from this collection of satellites could offer closer to real-time views of conditions on the ground, potentially helping to spot shifts in fire direction, better allocate fire fighting resources, plan evacuation routes and more, said Bronwyn Agrios, co-founder of Astro Digital.

“We can actually respond instead of react,” Agrios said.

 Bronwyn Agrios, co-founder of Astro Digital
Bronwyn Agrios, co-founder of Astro Digital
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Aquila and Astro Digital are among a growing number of startups pursuing constellation strategies in recent years, including Surrey Satellite Technology’s Disaster Monitoring Constellation, Planet Labs and Skybox, which Google acquired last year.

How big a difference this approach could actually make when it comes to battling wildfires or other disasters remains to be seen, however.

Triplett said the technologies need to be evaluated in the field by those actually battling blazes before any real conclusions can be drawn. But he said he’s following the space closely and is eager to see how satellite constellations and other emerging tools like unmanned aerial vehicles can help agencies prevent or respond to wildfires.

“The bottom line is, any time new intelligence becomes available through these types of things, it’s definitely something we want to look at and explore,” he said. “It’s a capacity we haven’t had before and the people on the ground will take it in a direction we never thought of.”

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