This team of 17-year-old high-school seniors in California created a device that could help prevent future wildfires

Smart Wildfire Sensor

  • Sanjana Shah and Aditya Shah are seniors at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California who have created a device for helping predict and prevent wildfires. 
  • Their device, dubbed the "Smart Wildfire Sensor," captures photos of nearby fallen branches and leaves (known as "fuel") and uses machine learning to categorize and determine wildfire threat levels. 
  • Today, forest crews do not have real-time fuel conditions because they have to send out teams to physically record this information. 
  • Sanjana and Aditya have entered their Smart Wildfire Sensor into Google‘s AI for Social Good program, which will provide $25 million in grant funding to winning teams. 

Sanjana Shah was interning at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the summer of 2017 when a wildfire caught in the nearby hills.

She and her co-workers were told to immediately leave the lab, evacuating with the red flames and black smoke at their backs. Sanjana made it to the nearest library on Berkeley’s campus and texted her parents, letting them know she needed a ride home early that day.

“It was just a really traumatic experience,” Sanjana remembers. She was 15 years old.

Two years later, Sanjana and her Monta Vista High School classmate Aditya Shah (the two aren’t related though they share the same last name) teamed up to try and fight an issue close to their hearts — wildfires. The 17-year-old Cupertino, California natives have both witnessed the destruction wildfires can cause (most recently with the Camp Fire, around 150 miles from the Bay Area) and are putting their bright, engineering minds together to find a better solution.

“The current problem with wildfire prediction is that forest crews do not have up-to-date fuel conditions in real-time because they physically have to go to each and every single forest site and classify fuels manually,” Sanjana told Business Insider. “We’re trying to prevent all of this manual labor from happening by predicting where a wildfire could occur in the first place.”

The two are creating what they call a “Smart Wildfire Sensor” to help predict areas of a forest that are highly susceptible to wildfires and provide alerts to local fire departments.

Smart Wildfire Sensor

Their device, which is still in its beta phase, works by being afixed to trees every square mile or so in a forest, capturing images of nearby, fallen branches, and leaves. Those photos are then classified using machine learning into 13 different categories of varying threat. Sanjana and Aditya are using an open-source machine-learning tool by Google called TensorFlow to process and categorize the photos.

When implemented, alerts will be sent to nearby fire crews when the forest fuel density and dryness reach a certain threat level.

“Especially in the last month with the Camp Fire taking around 60 lives, knowing that our device is actually able to prevent wildfires from occurring in the first place and knowing that we’ve been able to hone the technology in our generation to solve problems that have been existing for millions and millions of years,” Sanjana explains, “That’s the satisfaction we’ll receive after we’re done with the prototype to prove that it actually works."

Sanjana and Aditya are already in talks with Cal Fire to begin testing their Smart Wildfire Sensor, though discussions have been halted due to the recent fires.

Read more: Authorities are still searching for the remaining 993 missing people after the Camp Fire roared through Paradise

The high school senior duo are also entering their device to compete in Google’s AI for Social Good program, which will provide $25 million in grant funding to teams who are “[using] AI to help address some of the world’s greatest social, humanitarian and environmental problems,” according to the company’s website. 

If they were to receive funding from Google, Aditya says, “that would be really amazing. We would definitely use that money to benefit the social good by combating wildfires using our Smart Wildfire Sensor and developing it further.”

As for skipping college if they were awarded, say, $5 million from Google’s program, Sanjana and Aditya both said that idea wasn’t on their minds.

“We both think education is really important to us,” Sanjana says. “We’re both interested in engineering, whether it’s biology or computer software. We’re really interested to further our education. So we’d definitely be continuing our education even if we were to win $5 million.”

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from SAI