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Watching Wildfires

October 15, 2007

Fighting a wildfire requires knowing exactly how it is moving and where hot spots are flaring. The image at left–of a fire that burned parts of Santa Barbara County, CA, earlier this year–was produced by an experimental system that uses remote sensors to provide just such information to emergency responders, rapidly reporting changing conditions. The image was captured by a 118-kilogram infrared scanner in an unmanned airplane. Images were processed onboard, sent via satellite to a ground station, fused with geographic-­information-­system data, and displayed using Google Earth–all within minutes. Areas of the greatest heat intensity show up as the brightest spots on the image. Once tests are completed next year, the U.S. Forest Service may install the sensor-and-communication system in manned aircraft.

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