In Brandenburg, electronic “noses” to fight forest fires

(AFP) – In the German region of Brandenburg, which is regularly affected by forest fires, electronic “noses” must soon help limit the ravages of the flames by detecting the start of fires very early.

In the heart of the forest of Eberswalde, a municipality located in this Land that surrounds Berlin, Jürgen Müller lights a fire in a brazier with pine branches, a tree known to burn quickly and widespread in the region.

The smoke begins to billow.

The 69-year-old retired forestry expert has come to test tiny solar-powered gas sensors, invented two years ago by the Berlin start-up Dryad Networks, of which he is a co-founder.

These devices, fixed to the trees, are equipped with ultra-sensitive sensors developed by the industrialist Bosch, a kind of electronic “nose”, he says. They monitor air composition, temperature, humidity and pressure.

“In 10, 15 minutes, we can detect a fire on the ground before there is open fire,” much faster than traditional optical surveillance systems.

– Sensors that “sniff” –

The sensor uses artificial intelligence, which allows it to differentiate a possible forest fire from the gas emitted by, for example, a passing diesel truck.

Back in his workshop in Eberswalde, Mr. Müller also taught him to distinguish the smell according to the types of wood.

The device “now smells the smell of smoke coming from a pine or beech forest. And artificial intelligence is mapping that pattern, that ecosystem.”

As soon as a fire is detected, the data is transmitted to a cloud-based monitoring platform. The latter then sends a report to the local authorities.

About 400 sensors have been distributed in the municipal forest of the city, at the rate of one device per hectare, as part of a pilot project aimed at testing the reliability of the system.

According to the company, it has already been tested in ten countries, including the United States, Greece and Spain. About 10,000 devices were sold last year. By 2030, the goal is to distribute 120 million of them worldwide.

– Surveillance cameras –

Raimund Engel, responsible for forest protection in Brandenburg, is convinced that this solution can complement the visual detection currently applied in the state.

From atop the 105 towers scattered across the region, 360-degree cameras film the surroundings where human guards once stood guard, he says.

At the firefighting center in Wünsdorf, south of Berlin, Mr. Engel reviews the images sent by the cameras. If he spots a danger, he issues an immediate warning.

With 521 forest fires in 2022, Brandenburg is the German state most affected by the scourge.

“Due to climate change,” the weather conditions are “quite comparable to certain regions of the Mediterranean basin,” he says, with “periods of drought, and temperatures sometimes reaching 40 degrees.”

Overall, early diagnosis is one of the keys for him in the fight against claims.

“The sooner we detect the fire, the sooner firefighters can be on site,” he says, and prevent it from turning into an inferno.

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