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Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge: Winners Provide Real-time Systems for Measuring Pollutant Levels from Smoke

Published September 12, 2018

Wildland fires pose many obstacles for air sensor systems because of high concentrations of air pollutants, high temperatures, rugged terrain, and other environmental and location challenges. 

EPA and five federal partners created the Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge to encourage innovation through the development of novel air monitoring instruments that could be carried into remote areas, required minimal set-up and operation, and could be used to provide air quality data for communities impacted by smoke from wildland fires.

The first-place winners of the challenge are Jason Gu and Bryan Tomko, who used their experience designing gas detection and measurement instruments for manufacturing operations to develop an air sensor prototype for wildland fires. They won a $35,000 prize for their efforts.   

In Bellevue, Washington, Scott Waller, a former volunteer firefighter, and Andrew Smallridge, a developer of environmental measurement systems for the Americas Cup in Australia, earned second place in the Sensors Challenge with a $25,000 prize.  

Honorable Mention went to Javier Fernandez of Kunak Technologies and his team for their prototype.

“The winners of the Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge have demonstrated incredible ingenuity using miniaturized technology to develop continuous real-time monitoring systems that are accurate and portable,” says Alan Vette, Acting Director of the Air and Energy National Research Program at EPA. “This challenge has responded to the need for innovative systems for use during wildland fires to alert the public about health threats from high levels of smoke.”

Applying Industrial Sensor Knowledge

Gu and Tomko had been working on gas sensors, following graduation with doctor’s and master’s degrees, respectively, in materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. They started the company Sensevere to develop sensors for use in chemical plants and collaborate in developing air sensor monitoring systems with their Carnegie Mellon colleague, R. Subramanian.

Gu says the challenge stimulated ideas for how to adapt sensors they had built for tough industrial conditions for use in wildland fire measurements.      

Jason Gu (left) and Bryan Tomko of SenSevere/Sensit Technologies in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with R. Subramanian of Carnegie Mellon University, received first place and $35,000.Jason Gu (left) and Bryan Tomko of SenSevere/Sensit Technologies in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with R. Subramanian of Carnegie Mellon University, received first place and $35,000.“We were doing air sensor development, but the wildfire component was new to us. We thought it would be a cool use of sensors we already developed, and so we did some modifications to meet the needs of the challenge,” says Gu.

Following initial application and review, ten prototypes from developers underwent laboratory testing by the EPA in a controlled atmospheric chamber. In the second phase of testing, EPA and the U.S. Forest Service, a partner, operated the prototypes in a laboratory where different types of wildfire smoke were simulated. All the developers who submitted a system received evaluation results for their instrument. Additional testing is being conducted by EPA scientists on the winning prototypes.

Gu says the laboratory testing provide invaluable information about the capabilities of their technology and what they could do to improve performance. “It was really helpful to learn that things were working well because we can’t simulate a wildfire,” he says.

Gu and Tomko’s system, called RAMP, is being further developed and the company has since been acquired by Sensit Technologies in Valparaiso, Indiana.

A Passion for Firefighting

For Waller and Smallridge, the challenge offered an opportunity to try something new that fit in nicely with previous work on environmental and wireless detection systems. And for Waller, building an air sensor for wildland fires was personal since he served as a volunteer firefighter in Seattle, along with his wife. His brother is also a career firefighter.  

Scott Waller (left) and Andrew Smallridge of Thingy LLC, Bellevue, Wash. received second place and $25,000.Scott Waller (left) and Andrew Smallridge of Thingy LLC, Bellevue, Wash. received second place and $25,000.Waller says his experience fighting wildfires showed him the need for networks of air pollution detection and measurement systems in the field that can provide reliable exposure data for both the public and firefighters.  

“We’ve done a lot of research on PM (the pollutant, particulate matter) exposure and the need for weather data at base camps and out on the line. We are also building a small system to put on crew trucks to advance research of exposure to wildland firefighters in the field,” says Waller.

For the Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge, Waller and Smallridge, who formed the company, Thingy LLC, built a system called Thingy:AQ. They are focused on developing pre-calibrated systems that are ready for use in the field. The two said the name of the company came to them as they worked in their garage where their conversations revolved around connecting “things” together. Their families liked the idea, too.

The partners said the challenge proved interesting in many ways, including the goal to support firefighters and communities impacted by smoke from fires and the technical requirements for a high-performing instrument that would not be too heavy to carry and could be built at lower cost.

“We liked the challenge because it had really interesting technical challenges and an end date,” says Smallridge. The developers had about nine months from the announcement of the challenge to develop their proposal and submit their system.

Extending Environmental Monitoring Capabilities

In Spain, the start-up company Kunak Technologies is designing products for areas difficult to access for environmental monitoring that provide long-range, low-power and wireless capabilities. Javier Fernandez, CEO and founder, along with co-workers Miquel Escribano and Francisco Alonso, had already ventured into fire detection and monitoring for a utility company’s wind and solar farms. Kunak is also deploying low-cost air quality networks for industries and governments to provide real-time monitoring and better modelling with affordable devices. As part of this effort the company is working with the World Health Organization to assess air quality in Haiti.

Javier Fernandez of Kunak Technologies®, Pamplona, Spain received an honorable mention.Javier Fernandez of Kunak Technologies®, Pamplona, Spain received an honorable mention.Fernandez says the company found the sensors challenge project interesting in that it focused on trying to apply the best technology available to address the real-world problem of wildfires. They had been testing a system in a study co-locating ozone and particulate matter sensors and expanded the project to build Kunak Air to measure the four pollutants required for the challenge. 

EPA’s federal partners sponsoring the Challenge include the US Forest Service, NASA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Park Service.

View a Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge video

Learn more about the Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge

Learn about EPA’s Wildland Fire Research