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This lab is using AI to spot wildfires just minutes after they start

Most fire services rely on human spotters to identify and report new blazes, but Descartes Lab, a Santa Fe-based startup, aims to revolutionize the wildfire reporting process using cloud-based AI to identify fire outbreaks minutes after they happen. 

The lab uses AI to analyze huge amounts of NOAA thermal satellite imagery. By modeling what the earth would look like without fire and comparing it to the data they receive, they are able to pinpoint hot spots incredibly quickly. The lab can take an image from space, analyze it, and produce a fire alert in about nine minutes. When we compare this to traditional firefighting timelines, this has the potential to be lifesaving. 

Looking at the Kincade fire, for example, a 77,000 acre fire that broke out in Sonoma, California in 2019, Descartes Lab identified the fire just ten minutes after it started, but it took Cal Fire 30 minutes to receive an alert through their systems and several hours to report the blaze publicly. 

Using AI to scan for “heat anomalies,” the lab has successfully reported the exact location of nearly 5000 fires. The company is currently testing its wildfire alert system in conjunction with New Mexico’s forestry service but hopes to expand their reach to other states in the near future. 

The potential to identify wildfires minutes after they start would be incredibly beneficial for protecting communities. When it comes to climate change-driven “megafires” like the campfire in northern California which burned at a rate of 80 football fields per minute, even 10 minutes can mean the difference between lives saved or lost. 

Moving forward, the lab plans to integrate its innovative fire-spotting system with firefighting authorities across the US to communicate these vital alerts in real-time. But the company isn’t stopping there. They are also using their AI technology to find methane leaks in oil fields and scan crops for potential food shortages in Africa. This is a tangible solution for using fast-improving AI technology to protect communities and vital ecosystems by rooting out threats as soon as possible.

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