Fighting California’s future wildfires with revolutionary new VR technologySeptember 20, 2020
Every year it seems the wildfires sweeping through California cannot get worse – until they do.
The inferno currently devastating federal land just north of Sacramento, termed the August Complex Fire in Mendocino National Forest and ignited by a lightning strike three weeks ago, has already been classified as the Golden State’s worst in history. It is only 24% contained and already destroyed more than 471,000 acres.
According to Cal Fire officials, in 2020 alone, 3.1 million acres have blistered across California – a chilling statistic that many experts fear will only deepen.
However, makers of cutting-edge new technology vow that through means of new Virtual Reality (VR) 3D weather visualization, predicting future fires will become significantly easier and ultimately a game-changer, thus save lives and livelihoods in the process.
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“California’s wildfires have shown that complex and dynamic weather conditions greatly complicate firefighting efforts,” Suzanne Borders, CEO of BadVR, told Fox News. “If stakeholders had access to better predictive models and analytical tools, the loss of life and the economic impact could be reduced significantly.”
BadVR bills itself as the “world’s first immersive data visualization and analytics platform,” which “brings data into high-definition, making it easier to discover and identify hidden problems and opportunities.”
The technology is in development now, but it could be on firelines as soon as this time next year. BadVR has two products related to the blazes: the Augmented Reality Operations Center (AROC) and 3D Weather Visualization. The company is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA).
“Weather defines fires, so it is vital to understand weather patterns in context so firefighters can make accurate personnel and resource management decisions to save lives and property,” Borders explained.
It is revolutionary in the sense that through BadVR’s augmented and virtual reality software, it empowers first responders with “data superpowers” that allow them to visualize and understand data in new and more effective ways, giving them an edge that’s currently not possible with traditional computer screen technologies.
The technology is supporting the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) big data initiative, bringing historical and live weather datasets into multi-dimensional environments to better help scientists, meteorologists, and the U.S. military understand weather patterns and behavior.
Specifically, BadVR’s dynamic weather visualization in VR is currently being developed by BadVR for NOAA and other federal agencies. This will enable portable, intuitive weather pattern analysis. It aims to enable 3D weather visualization from multiple NOAA radar data streams in real-time.
“The novel application of immersive technology for NEXRAD data will fundamentally transform weather presentation from the ‘blocky’ 2D weather maps of yesterday to the engaging and accessible 3D experience enabled by augmented and virtual reality,” Borders explained.
Imagine a fire chief dispatched to an emergency wildfire, a scenario that is unfortunately all too common in California. On the way to the front lines, the chief wears a VR headset with access to the NEXRAD dataset for their locale. They see the entire area’s moving weather system in 3D from multiple ground or aerial perspectives.
In addition, locations of deployed firefighters and vehicles can be displayed, as well as the real-time availability of regional firefighting resources. Research has shown that interacting with this information through VR rather than traditional 2D screens yields a 60% improvement in retention.
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BadVR’s system is additionally being tested in the current National Institutes of Standards and Technology, Public Safety Communications Research Division’s CHARIoT Challenge, which aims to bring augmented reality command and control to the first responder community.
“This competition is defining how first responders will use augmented reality headsets to radically improve situational awareness and decisionmaking,” Borders noted. “Basically how first responders will make firefighting decisions as early as the next fire season.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom has pinned the blame on climate change – primarily defined by prolonged heatwaves and thunderstorms – for the ever-worsening blazes. Critics instead point to gross government mismanagement, neglect, and over-zealous legislation that prohibits even private owners from adequate backburning.
At least 12 people have died over the last month as a result of dozens of severe fires spanning San Diego in the state’s very south to Siskiyou – the northmost point bordering Oregon.
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Nonetheless, BadVR’s goal is not just to be accessible to the government sectors – but to private companies and citizens who also endeavor to protect their properties and families in the face of wildfires and other disasters via early warning signs.
“The world’s datasets should be easily accessible – and understandable – to everyone,” Borders added.