This startup thinks IoT devices can help with wildfire detection

Dryad Networks claims its sensors can spot trouble earlier than visual methods can.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Source: Getty Images

· 4 min read

Even though the year is not yet over, 2022 has been the US’s most active wildfire year within the past decade in terms of the number of fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Through early October alone, 55,612 fires have burned up nearly 7 million acres across the country.

As wildfire risk continues to rise, startups are providing new tech, like AI-assisted cameras or drones, that attempts to aid fire authorities in detecting wildfires earlier. German startup Dryad Networks, which has raised €13.9 million since its 2020 founding, is based on an approach that uses devices to detect fires at their exact source. Dryad places IoT sensors throughout fire-prone forests, where they aim to identify fires before they can grow into deadly infernos.

“The advantage of that approach is that we can detect fires even during what's called the smoldering phase. So before there is an open fire, before you can even see it from a kilometer or two kilometers away,” Carsten Brinkschulte, co-founder and CEO of Dryad Networks, told Emerging Tech Brew.

In practice

So far, Dryad has deployed 12 proof-of-concept installations in countries like the United States, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Germany, and South Korea. It has installed a few hundred sensors through these projects, and plans to manufacture at least 10,000 sensors to aid in large-scale deployments by the end of 2022, Brinkschulte said. He added that Dryad is aiming to manufacture 230,000 units by the end of 2023.

Hundreds of Dryad’s $50 sensors would need to be placed around a forest in order to accurately detect fires, Brinkschulte said, adding that the more sensors placed, the faster the detection time. He said the average distance between sensors should be 100 meters, depending on factors like the terrain, budget, and scope of the project.

“Basically, the distance between the ignition source and the sensor is shorter if you put more,” he said. “So you can even further increase or decrease the detection time by putting [in] more sensors.”

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Philipp Nahrstedt, head of the state forestry office in Annaburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, told Emerging Tech Brew in an emailed statement that it would cost around €30 million to outfit all of the forest in his state with Dryad sensors, and added that it wouldn’t be manageable to do so from a maintenance POV anyway. Instead, his office plans to buy between 2,000 and 5,000 sensors that will be deployed in strategic areas, like parks, hiking trails, and barbecue areas. Nahrstedt estimated the cost of these sensors will range from €200,000 to €500,000.

Fire authorities might not have access to Dryad’s tech yet, but fire-detection technology is not a new concept. Companies like Pano use ML-trained cameras to detect and alert authorities to fires before they spread, and startups like Cornea and Edgybees have sprouted up to help authorities by using overlays and prediction modeling to help track the progress of wildfires as they develop.

For its part, Dryad’s tech centers around a solar-powered gas sensor that uses machine learning to detect the “gas composition that is typical for a wildfire,” including hydrogen and carbon monoxide, Brinkschulte said.

Brinkschulte said Dryad’s sensors, which scan for fires every minute, are able to identify and alert authorities to a smoldering fire within an hour, while other methods, like satellites, drones, or cameras, can take hours to sense and report fires.

In remote areas like a forest, where connectivity is low, Dryad’s tech operates through a mesh network planted in the forest, which then relays information collected from the sensors to satellites flying overhead, enabling the fast transmission of information to fire authorities. The company partnered with the SpaceX-owned connectivity company, Swarm, to tap into its satellite network.

Brinkschulte emphasized that no fire-detection tech is a “single silver bullet,” but feels that Dryad’s advantage lies in its potential to spot fires “faster than all of the other detection methodologies,” particularly under the tree canopy.

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