Fighting a wildfire requires a lot of data: weather forecasts, terrain maps, private and commercial property boundaries and historic fire perimeters are just some of the many variables a fire official must account for in drawing up a battle plan.
The right technology can collect essential information that gives crews a significant advantage over a blaze. Yet firefighting is a finely tuned practice based on decades of experience – to introduce the latest fad in data collection and analysis risks making potentially fatal or disastrous mistakes.
“Firefighting is a very delicate thing,” says Everett Hinkley, national remote-sensing program manager for the U.S. Forest Service. “You don’t want to introduce something that could break at a critical time.”
For those unfortunate enough to be trapped in a caved-in mine or under the rubble of a collapsed building, the chance of being rescued largely depends upon trained humans and dogs. The equipment they may be outfitted with—thermal imaging sensors, carbon dioxide detectors and flexible video cameras—may also provide some limited help.
But those buried too deeply for searchers to detect them must put all hope of rescue upon the slim possibility that first responders uncover them by chance. For this reason, researchers are trying to develop search and rescue robots that could vastly improve the odds for victims trapped underground.
“The dream and goal in this field is to turn a robot into a multifunctional device capable of moving everywhere,” says Daniel Goldman, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We’re seeking inspiration for how teams of little robots could self-organize to create structures that allow them to efficiently and effectively move around in nasty environments.”
The harvest season seems to whiz by every year in northern latitudes. Just as the time comes to sink a fork into early spring’s peppery locally grown lettuce and asparagus, the market’s crates are already brimming with winter squash. And the juicy tomatoes that yesterday took a quick ride from a nearby farm start logging thousands of miles from farm to table.
Unfortunately, the only two options for most consumers looking to buy fresh produce during the cold months are either to get them shipped from warmer regions or from greenhouses closer by. Efficiencies in the agricultural and shipping systems being what they are, fruits and vegetables grown in warmer climes—by necessity picked before they ripen to prevent spoilage in transit—cost less than premium-priced food from the greenhouse.
Either way, each of those February cucumbers is the product of a significant energy investment—whether it’s producing the fertilizer, burning fuel in shipping, or lighting and heating commercial greenhouses.