Innovative Microballoon-based Wildfire Monitoring System Led by Urban Sky Wins NASA Award

Jun 26, 2024

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Team including Urban Sky, NASA JPL, Chapman University, CU Boulder-CIRES,
goTenna and the Air Force Wildland Fire Branch Will Develop a Rapidly Deployable,
Navigable, Stratospheric Earth Observation & Communications Extension Platform

Denver, CO Urban Sky, a stratospheric technology and remote sensing company, announced today a new multi-year, multi-million-dollar grant from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). NASA SMD selected this team for the FireSense Technology Program (FIRET-23), under the 2023 solicitation (A.59 of the Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences omnibus announcement). FIRET is a technology development program managed by the Earth Science Technology Office (ESTO) that seeks new, innovative Earth system observation capabilities to predict and manage wildfires and their impacts. These grants aim to develop new tools for monitoring extreme fire events and forecasting wildfire spread. 

The team’s effort will focus on the advancement of a rapidly deployable, low-cost, navigable stratospheric balloon armed with a high-resolution, long-wave-infrared (LWIR) sensor capable of downlinking thermal hotspot data in near-real-time. The navigable stratospheric balloon, known as a Microballoon™, will also carry a mesh networked communication repeater and transmitter (furnished by goTenna), to allow firefighters operating in remote regions to maintain connectivity and receive updated, real-time wildfire information. 

The project team includes representatives from Urban Sky (led by Lead Remote Sensing Engineer Dr. Riley Reid), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (led by Co-Investigator Ian McCubbin), and Chapman University (led by Co-Investigator Dr. Joshua B. Fisher). The team will also include representatives from University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES, led by Dr. Christine Wiedinmyer), technical leads from goTenna (an industry-leading mobile mesh networking company,) and support from the U.S. Air Force Wildland Fire Branch (led by Jack Thornton). 

We are excited and honored to join forces with some incredible partners to build a world-leading solution for wildfire monitoring, management and response,” said Dr. Reid, Urban Sky Lead Remote Sensing Engineer. “Our system will offer something no other solution can: rapidly deployable, low-cost, high-resolution wildfire monitoring combined with mesh networked communications in a single platform that will allow firefighters in remote regions to view and analyze near-real-time fire perimeters and hotspots.”

Envision this system as a vigilant sentinel, floating high above in the stratosphere for days or weeks at a time, casting an expansive gaze over our forests. With its sharp eyes, it can detect the faintest glimmers of a nascent fire and monitor its every move, sending real-time data back to those who can combat it on the front lines. 

“This is an exciting project that aims to address critical needs for the NASA FireSense Technology program,” said Ian McCubbin, Co-Investigator at JPL in Southern California. “The goal is to measure pre-fire and active fire conditions while delivering last mile communication for near real time data to the wildfire fighters on the front lines.” 

The technical solution being developed is anchored by two primary components, including: 

  1. High-Resolution Imaging: The team’s sensor will have the capability to capture vast areas at a rapid rate, approximately 3,000 acres per minute at a 3.5 meter resolution, ensuring comprehensive broad-area monitoring. Coupled with the Microballoon’s persistent operational ability, the system can stay airborne for days, even weeks, either hovering over an active fire, moving between fires, or scouting areas at high risk for potential outbreaks. 
  2. Enhancing communication capabilities for ground-based firefighters: Beyond just detection and mapping, the system will be outfitted with a mesh networked communication repeater and transmitter. This addition enables firefighters on the ground, often working in austere regions, to maintain connectivity, ensuring efficient coordination during firefighting operations. This communication will also provide the ability to send shape files outlining a fire’s location, generated by the imager, to firefighters in the field directly, providing a cutting-edge opportunity for firefighters to use a sensor tens of kilometers above them to see the fire they are fighting in near-real time. 

This effort will span a roughly three-year period, allowing for the rapid development and test of a complete solution that could be deployed in support of actual wildfire monitoring at the conclusion of the program. 

About Urban Sky Theory, Inc. 

Urban Sky, a stratospheric technology and remote sensing company, invented the stratospheric Microballoon™, a high-altitude remote sensing platform that leverages component miniaturization, first-of-its-kind balloon reusability and the high vantage point of the stratosphere to drastically reduce the cost of high-resolution remote sensing data over very broad areas, leading to more impactful data over more areas than ever before.