Data transmission challenges



A look at two areas of research going on at the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting in Rifle

These days, there’s a lot of good information that can be generated for help in fighting fires.

Take, for example, Colorado’s two Multi-Mission Aircraft, which have sensors for detecting and mapping fires from high above. Those maps would come in handy if transmitted to firefighters on the ground, but that’s a difficult proposition on many fires, where poor or no cellphone service typically is the norm and firefighters may have to rely on maps that are typically updated once a day rather than continuously.

Such data-transmission challenges are a focus of research by Brad Schmidt, wildland fire technology specialist at the Center of Excellence.

“Part of the idea is we really want to improve the safety of firefighters,” Schmidt said.

That can be accomplished not only by figuring out ways to deliver them real-time maps, but by using technology to let fire managers know individual firefighters’ locations in relationship to the fire, if that location information can be transmitted.

Many firefighting fatalities over the years resulted at least in part from communications breakdowns about such pertinent information, with fire managers often currently relying on firefighters calling in their locations by radio.

Schmidt said the military has developed useful and pertinent data-transmission technology, but it’s generally cost-prohibitive.

One device he’s been exploring is a VHF radio that transmits data rather than voice communications. Paired to a smartphone using Bluetooth, it can send a text message or global-positioning system location. A map would be too big a file to send, but things such as a point on a map, or a polygon depicting a fire perimeter, could be sent to a recipient with a map already loaded on their device.

Schmidt said he’s talking to the University of Colorado and other universities that are working on developing protocols to ferry data around. For example, data loaded onto an airplane or vehicle could be flown or driven to a fire, then transmitted to firefighters via Wi-Fi.

Other possibilities include setting up a cellphone repeater system in an aircraft or backpack, or making use of a system called the Android Team Awareness Kit, or ATAK, which lets cellphones communicate with each other where there’s no cellphone service, when paired with data-transmitting radios.

While Schmidt occasionally fights fires as well, he said one of the great things about working at the center is that he has the time to chase things down like the issue of data connectivity, establishing important relationships with military, university and other contacts in the process.

He also likes working on fires to find out what’s on firefighters’ minds and what their challenges are. He’s determined to push toward having an operational solution to the data connectivity challenge firefighters face.

“We really want to help them get the same data an Uber driver has, a FedEx driver has,” Schmidt said, pointing to the maps so readily accessible to the wired world. “… I think it’s a shame wildland firefighters don’t have that yet.”

— Dennis Webb


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