How cellular interference can help track the spread of wildfires

Modern technologies allow much of what was previously completely impossible. And some of the solutions are very unusual. For example, Twitter and Facebook posts help track the spread of the flu virus or COVID-19. A simple analysis of user messages – and we have an objective picture of the development of the epidemic.

And there are a lot of such unusual combined solutions. Now it turned outthat a forest fire creates conditions that change the propagation of the mobile network signal. By monitoring these changes, it is possible to remotely and with high accuracy predict the spread of fires and, accordingly, dispatch emergency services to the most critical places.

How did this idea come about?

Interference during fires has been known for a long time. But in 2020, there was a forest fire in Australia around Melbourne. The relevant services sent information messages to the mobile phones of local residents. Messages reached the addressees, but, as it turned out, the signal propagated in a rather strange way.

The higher the air temperature, the more fires and atmospheric disturbances associated with them, the stronger the interference… Scientists began to understand the reasons and quickly found the reason. So, in a normal situation, the temperature is higher at the surface of the earth, which is heated by the sun. During fires, the opposite is true: the closer to the surface, the lower the temperature.

The smoke from the fires covers the sun, absorbing most of the heat and light energy. Dry, hot and opaque air covers vast territories at this time. As it turned out, all this has a very strong effect on the propagation of the radio signal: it does not go in a straight line between the antennas, the trajectory turns out to be somewhat different.

The signal deflects towards the surface, reflects off it, goes back into the air (already weakened), is reflected again, and so on – it all depends on the distance over which the signal of the cellular network is transmitted. The quality of signal reception changes among local residents: somewhere the connection improves, but somewhere, on the contrary, it becomes worse.

So, what is next?

This is where technology comes into play. During the fires, a group of scientists from Australia began to analyze the interference of cellular networks. It turned out that the outlines of regions with interference exactly coincide with the boundaries of smoke. At that time, by the way, the air of Melbourne became so polluted that it was recognized as the most polluted in the world. For a while, of course.

Predicting the spread of smoke and monitoring already affected regions is an extremely important task. Mainly because smoke is contraindicated in people with pulmonary diseases, especially asthmatics. Therefore, modeling the path of the spread of smoke and fires can save more than one hundred lives. About 445 people died due to the 2019-2020 fires. And it’s not about fire, but just about smoke, which has an extremely negative effect on the health of weakened people. In California, USA, the situation in 2020 was even worse… According to a number of studies then 3000 people died

If scientists simulated the exact situation in Australia and in the United States, then there could be much fewer victims, or even everything would have been done without them.

Now the method is at an early stage of study, but the prospects for detecting smoke by changing the signal of the cellular network are quite bright. An important point: the authors do not suggest using it as the only way to detect fires and predict their development. No, they plan to use it in conjunction with other technologies, including aerial photography, satellite imagery, and so on. The combined results of observations and analysis will allow the development of a very accurate model of the spread of fire and smoke, which will save both people and their property.

Almost free

A huge plus of this method is that you do not need to use expensive equipment, deploy monitoring networks, etc. At a low cost of this approach, the data are obtained no less accurate than using aerial photography, satellite images, etc.

Moreover, during fires in the region, there are special services that study air quality. These are experts with special equipment taking air samples. They estimate the amount of various pollutants such as aerosols, dust, gases, and publish research results indicating the need for evacuation when the situation gets out of control.

And, of course, it’s not just about Australia. Here, in general, you can do without an additional method of assessing smoke – emergency services work perfectly. But this is not the case in every country. In many regions and states, there are no services at all, or they exist, but only those that are engaged in extinguishing fires. Accordingly, there is no question of analyzing, modeling and drawing up a predictive model. But cell towers are everywhere now. It is not so difficult to fix the distortion of the signal of the cellular network, therefore, it is possible to quite accurately determine the boundaries of the fire, the direction of its development and the pattern of smoke propagation.

Everything is simple here: there is a cellular network, which means that you can determine the degree of fire hazard. I would like to hope that this method will not be shelved, but will be recognized in different countries.

Overall, this is another example of how technology is helping people, albeit in a somewhat unexpected way.

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