FireWatch is low-cost device that is able to accurately identify and localize forest fires.

Photo of Neil Suri
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Date You Started Your Project Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Forest fires can destroy property, take lives, and wreak environmental havoc. Since wildfires grow exponentially, quickly alerting firefighters to the exact location of the fire is critical in preventing fires from becoming uncontrollable. Current detection systems either lack the ability to identify the location of the fire or are prohibitively expensive. In order to help firefighters it is necessary to create low-cost reliable fire detection.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Current camera-based fire monitoring systems cost up to $70k and fail to detect the exact location of wildfires limiting their applicability. As a response to this problem, I designed, built and implemented a low-cost monitoring device that can accurately detect and localize a fire with hardware that costs only $103. The device contains a 3d printed body that contains a Raspberry Pi Computer, a cellular modem, battery pack, and other electronic components. On top of the main body, I mounted a solar panel to power the device. Attached to the side of the main body is a camera hub that sits above the main device. The camera hub contains 4 cameras mounted at 90° angles in order to provide 360° coverage. At one minute intervals, the device takes a picture with one of each of its for images and scans the image for potential wildfires. If a wildfire is detected, the exact Latitude and Longitude are sent to first responders in order to minimize the latency between detecting fires and first responders arriving to the fire. Testing showed that the FireWatch device could operate for two days without sunlight and could withstand heavy rainfall making it usable in real-life conditions.

3. Using STEM as a force of good: Please specify how are you using STEM to solve for an environmental challenge you are passionate about.

In order to make the device low-cost and small, the onboard computer is not very powerful and has limited battery capacity. Existing camera detection algorithms would require more computation power and energy than possible. Given these limitations, I had to adapt existing computer vision algorithms. The fundamental idea behind the data-sparsity approach is that most pixels in an image aren’t relevant for fire detection. For example, the parts of an image that show the sky without smoke or clouds aren’t relevant and an algorithm can detect a fire in the image without seeing that part of the sky. By focusing the neural network on the relevant parts of the image I reduce power consumption by 80% while maintaining equivalent accuracy. I also created a technique called GeoMatching to precisely localize the fire. To do this, I extract keypoint features from the camera image and match these to the same features at that location in Google Earth. I then solve for the orientation of the camera and use ray tracing to determine the actual coordinates of the fire. This technique, is able to detect wildfires with a mean error of 43.2 m. Watch the attached at the top for more information.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

I’ve always spent as much time as I could in the mountains. In summers, I hike and camp practically every weekend, while during the winters, I try to go skiing as often as I possibly can. There’s something about the crisp fresh air and freedom that nature provides, and over time, I’ve become passionate about preserving the pristine nature of the places, especially after witnessing the devastation of a wild fire in the summer of 2018. I was hiking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, when five miles in, I passed over a ridge and found hundreds of thousands of charred tree trunks littering the landscape. The mountainside looked like it was straight out of a post-apocalyptic novel. After seeing the utter devastation to the ecosystem and loss of habitat firsthand I decided that I wanted to use my knowledge of computer science to help first responder fight forest fires.

5. Video (Keep it simple, a video made on a hand-held phone is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

The main activities that were required to develop the FireWatch prototype were developing the fire detection algorithm and designing/fabricating the physical components of the FireWatch device. After developing the prototype, I decided to recruit a team of 12 volunteers from local high schools and universities who help me with hardware, software, and public outreach. Without the help of my team, the device could never have advanced from a prototype to a fully deployable end-to-end product.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

There exists two modern widely-used fire detection systems: Camera based systems and CO2 Detectors. Camera based systems cost upwards of $70k and can't provide the exact location of the fire. CO2 detectors can provide a location, but have highly limited range making them impractical in most circumstances. The FireWatch device combines the best of both worlds with the high range and accuracy of the camera systems with the low-cost decentralized localization of the CO2 detectors. Additionally, the cost of the FireWatch device is only $103.22, less than 1% the cost of state of the art systems.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made?

In February of 2020 I partnered with several local land owners in the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia to set up 8 FireWatch devices as a beta program. The devices cover a combined area of greater than 600,000 acres of mainly wooded land. The purpose of the beta program was to test device durability, battery length, and waterproofing all in real-world circumstances. However, the beta test took an unexpected turn when on the morning of March 10th, one of the devices was able to accurately detect and localize a real forest fire in the Tanners Ridge area. The accurate detection and localization of a real forest fire in real-world conditions providing convincing proof for the reliability and accuracy of the system. Starting in late March, in partnership with local organizations in Allegheny County in VA, I have set up three more devices that are actively monitoring for forest fires.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

In December 2019, I laid out my plan for 2020 which focused on local testing and partnerships until June. I planned over the summer (2020) to transition to find partners on the West Coast where fires are more prevalent. Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus Pandemic it will be very difficult for me to establish local connections in the region without being able to travel, demo or install devices Instead, I am taking the Pandemic as an opportunity to focus on furthering the software and hardware components of the FireWatch device and continuing to recruit a larger team. Additionally, I am looking into how I can transition FireWatch from being entirely reliant on donations into a sustainable non-profit with a revenue model for the future.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

In my effort to bring FireWatch from a prototype to a deployment-ready product. I recruited young people from High Schools in Northern Virginia along with students from GMU and GWU in DC. The FireWatch volunteers were split into 3 teams: the software, hardware, and public outreach teams. Many of the volunteers were hesitant at first about helping an environmental non-profit. However, over time it was evident that all of our volunteers became as passionate as I am about protecting forests.

11. Please share ideas of how you can partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

Some Changemakers may have contacts with local governments that would prove invaluable for finding new local partners. Additionally, they may be able to volunteer their time or technical expertise to FireWatch. I'm always looking for volunteers with engineering and software experience. Finally, I'd like to collaborate with anyone with social media marketing experience because I am looking to increase our online presence. I look forward to the opportunity to collaborate with other Changemakers!

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

Most people already understand that forest fires are bad for the environment and that helping firefighters is a good thing. I think with FireWatch, the numbers speak for themselves. The 97% fire detection accuracy at 1% the cost of existing systems is simply staggering. When people see what we're building here they want to volunteer for the kind of organization that is committed to protecting against forest fires around the world and is already making significant strides.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Word of mouth

Evaluation results

6 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

Yes, absolutely! - 50%

Probably - 50%

Maybe - 0%

Probably not - 0%

No - 0%

2. CONNECTION to Environmental Sustainability

5 - Absolutely! It is totally clear that the solution is contributing directly to environmental sustainability and/or addressing climate change - 50%

4 — Yes, it establishes a connection to environment/ climate change but could be stronger - 50%

3 — Somewhat, the entry speaks to this environmental sustainability, but the direct impact is not well established - 0%

2 — Not really, the connection to environment/ climate is very weak - 0%

1 — No. The entry does not have a reference the solution’s impact on environment and/or climate change - 0%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%

3. Is this entry CREATIVE?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

4 - Yes, I think so - 66.7%

3 - Maybe - 0%

2 - Probably not. - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

4. Does this entry demonstrate a COMMITMENT to changemaking?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 100%

4 - Yes, I think so - 100%

3 - Maybe - 0%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Does this entry value CHANGEMAKING through collaboration with other stakeholders in its approach?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

4 - Yes, I think so - 33.3%

3 - Maybe - 33.3%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

6. Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 16.7%

4- Yes, I think so - 66.7%

3- Maybe - 16.7%

2- Probably not - 0%

1- No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

7. FEEDBACK: What are the strengths of this project?

CONNECTION: You have a great understanding and personal connection to the problem - 100%

CREATIVITY: You have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions to aid environmental sustainability/combat climate change - 100%

COMMITMENT: You have a thoughtful plan for growing your business, and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 25%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: You value thinking around how to activate other changemakers and empower them to care about your cause. You also have a clearly defined plan on how to collaborate across multiple stakeholders - 50%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 50%

VIABLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 75%

Other option - 0%

8. FEEDBACK: What are some areas for improvement for this project?

CONNECTION: Why you care about the environment/ climate was unclear – It would be great to elaborate on what this solution means to you, personally and how it affects you and/or your community. - 0%

CREATIVITY: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 100%

COMMITMENT: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 50%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: Try to provide more insights into how you are activating changemakers and empowering them to innovate through your product or programming. How will they care about environment/climate if they currently do not? Think about how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 100%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 100%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 50%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 50%

Other option - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Hector Moyeton

Thank you for sharing your project with us, it is truly a remarkable solution, particularly for how you managed to reduce the cost by focusing only on the essential uses of the cameras (among other things).
I would be interested to know if you have considered the possibility of taking it a step further. Maybe you can analyze what high risk conditions for forest fires look like and guide preventive actions. You could potentially partner with a government agency, university or others to install the devices, store data from them and then use a big data approach to map high risk locations even before a fire happens.

Photo of Neil Suri

Hector Moyeton  One of the aspects that I am currently working with my team is using agent-based modeling to predictively model the spread of wildfires using data from the NOAA and NASA about the local geography, vegetation, and rainfall patterns. Modeling the potential impact of fires would allow me to better place FireWatch devices in specific locations where the maximum environmental protection can be achieved from each device.

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