How a local tech company and CU hackathon may have unlocked the key to detecting wildfires

by April Bohnert
July 10, 2018
FreeWave Technologies industrial IoT wildfire detection
Photo via Shutterstock.

As wildfires continue to rage throughout Colorado, many are seeking ways to not only stop them faster but also to detect them sooner — and thanks to a CU Boulder hackathon and the cutting-edge technology of one local company, there might just be a solution on the horizon.

Boulder-based FreeWave Technologies develops technology for the industrial Internet of Things. Serving industries that range from oil and gas and agriculture to military defense and drones, FreeWave leverages super high-frequency radio devices and sensors to detect, collect and transmit information in real time from some of the most remote parts of the world.

Earlier this year, the company challenged students at CU Boulder to explore new ways to apply its technology and the winning idea hit closer to home than anyone anticipated.


FreeWave Technologies industrial IoT radio
Image courtesy of FreeWave Technologies.


Their proposal? Place thermal sensors on telephone poles in fire-prone areas and use FreeWave’s radio systems to link those sensors and detect sudden changes in temperature. Real-time alerts could then be sent to local power companies, police dispatchers, fire departments, forest services or other relevant users, providing coordinates and even sending drones to collect video and survey the area.

Transmitting data for future analysis is important, but the real power of the technology is in its ability to not just collect the data but also to take action and do something with it.”

“There’s a crucial need to have data available to use, in the field, where you are, immediately,” said CMO Scott Allen. “Transmitting data for future analysis is important, but the real power of the technology is in its ability to not just collect the data but also to take action and do something with it.”

Nearly all the technology needed to implement the students’ plan already exists within FreeWave’s product offerings, and later this summer, the company plans to launch a video streaming application that will enable users to transmit video data over radio — something that was virtually impossible to do before now. By combining these technologies with third-party applications, sensors and drones, forest fires could be detected in the matter of minutes, buying first responders critical time.

FreeWave’s technologies reach far beyond wildfire detection though. Its low-power, long-distance, highly rugged radio devices are deployed over land, sea and air, in extreme conditions ranging from the hottest deserts in Africa to the sub-zero plains of Antarctica. They help detect earthquakes and volcano activity. They enable oil and gas companies to safely and efficiently monitor well pads. They’re used to collect data from unmanned drones, monitor remote borders of nations and deliver humanitarian aid supplies to hard-to-reach villages. Its applications are vast — and growing.

In the 25 years since the company’s birth, its technology has undergone a dramatic evolution.

“When I was a kid, we had an old rotary dial phone, and the only reason we used it was to talk to somebody. That was it,” Allen said. “I liken the classic radios from FreeWave and others to that. All it was really good for was moving information from one place to another. It wasn’t really intelligent. What we have today is more like a smartphone. It’s a completely different thing. We spend more time using the applications on our iPhones than we do talking on them, and I believe we’re seeing a similar transformation in the industrial environment we work in. New applications and new ideas are enabling us to analyze information, take better action, determine if there’s risk, and that is helping us to continue innovating our products — in a way much like the smartphone.”

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