One-minute data from UW-Madison satellite ground station helps NASA detect wildfires faster

MADISON, Wis. — When it comes to fighting wildfires, every minute matters. This year, a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched a system that can help detect them and alert NASA in just a matter of seconds. 

“This particular system that works with these satellites, our system is the only one that I know of in the United States that’s operating right now,” said Liam Gumley, UW Distinguished Scientist.

Wildfires detected from space can now appear on the NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) online map faster than you can type in the website. 

“We looked at the hardware systems that we have both in orbit and the receiving systems that we have here at UW and said, ‘We don’t see any reason why we couldn’t do this in 60 seconds,’” Gumley said.   

That traditionally took 60 minutes with the existing system — until Gumley and his team launched UW’S low-latency data processing ground station 6 months ago.  

“This is our antenna system that we use to receive data from satellites in low earth orbit,” Gumley said over the roaring wind Friday, operating the satellite dish on the roof of the Department of Engineering Physics Building. “So, when we receive that broadcast on the earth, we then have to transform it to a sequence of 0s and 1s, a string of bits.” 

“We then have to calibrate it to transform it from a digital count to a physical quantity like a temperature. And then from that point, we have an algorithm that looks at each pixel and determines if that pixel is a fire or is it something else, or is it a cloud, is it the ocean, is it a land surface?” Gumley said. “And then once that software pops out the pixels that are determined to be wildfires, we then send to NASA with low latency.”  

NASA gets that info in less than a minute, for wildlife and fire managers in the U.S. and Canada to plan with.

“Better plan where they’re going to deploy their resources, where they need to be thinking about deploying resources in the next half a day or so,” Gumley said.  

NASA FIRMS sees the technology spreading beyond the US and Canada.

“We’ve had users requesting this data for a long time,” said Diane Davies, NASA LANCE Operations Manager. “So I think it’s valuable at all different scales so whether you’re doing strategic fire monitoring or whether you’re doing fire risk, modeling fire spread.”

Gumley and the team here think it could be the beginning of fire detection — right at our fingertips.

“The next step potentially would be to work out a way to add some intelligence to the dissemination of that data, and that could be something like an app on our phone.”  

“Just like you get a warning today on extreme weather if you happen to be in a county where there’s a severe weather warning, or a thunderstorm warning, that perhaps you could get a warning about, there’s a fire that’s been detected in proximity to your location,” Gumley said.