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ECE students pitch NASA on wildfire detection and prevention system

From left: Emadeldeen Hamdan, Shuaiang Rong, Professor Ahmet Enis Cetin, Moises Loera Martinez, Kishan Patel

Students in the ECE department competed in a NASA technology challenge aimed at finding innovative solutions to address the growing issues caused by wildfires, which have been exacerbated by climate change. UIC’s team, FireSENSE, qualified for and was invited to present at the Semifinalist Pitch Event at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., on March 14.

The Wildfire Climate Tech Challenge is hosted by NASA’s MSI Incubator and combines NASA resources with students from Minority Serving Institutions, or MSIs, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and others.

Team FireSENSE was headed by Professor Ahmet Enis Cetin, who is a pioneer in video-based wildfire detection, PhD Candidate Shuaiang Rong, PhD Student Emadeldeen Hamdan, and four undergraduate students from UIC’s Early Research Scholar Program (ERSP): Neftaly Lara, Jose Marquez, Moises Loera Martinez, and Kishan Patel.

ERSP is a yearslong, team-based research program for computer science and electrical and computer engineering students and is focused on engaging students from minoritized groups in computing including women, Black, Latinx, Native American, and Indigenous students. Besides learning the fundamentals of conducting computing-related research, students contribute to a faculty member’s research project.

“Being a part of ERSP has definitely provided me with experience in research, but the NASA MSI Incubator Wildfire Climate Tech Challenge allowed me to see how research reaches the entrepreneurial realm, and how it fuels the life-changing and life-saving technology that we see in the world,” Lara said.

Team FireSENSE built on work initiated by Cetin almost 20 years ago, using computer vision/ AI methods for wildfire detection. Cetin trained an AI to detect wildfire smoke and other indications of fire on a feed from networks of still cameras. Cetin’s system was deployed in Turkey in 2010, and

in 2023, his AlertCalifornia and Cal Fire AI Wildfire Detector was named in Time Magazine Best Inventions of 2023.

Cetin and his current and former graduate students, including Rong and Hamdan, expanded the still camera-based system to include images from drones, planes, and satellites. The group published a paper last summer, Wildfire detection via transfer learning: a survey, which was included in the journal Signal, Image, and Video Processing in January.

“If we want to tackle wildfires from A to Z, incorporating pre-fire detection is critical,” Hamdan said. “The aim of the full software is that you’re not going to need fire protection towers to monitor areas, this system will constantly monitor and alert users to any potential fires.”

Cetin’s group then worked with undergraduates Lara, Marquez, Martinez, and Patel, who explored different computer models for the system, and learned how to train and develop these models to better detect pre-fire indicators. They then created tools for their NASA pitch.

They proposed products including a pre-fire generative AI-based vegetation monitoring software using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite, aircraft, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)-based imagery; video- and image-based wildfire detection software for fixed cameras, drones, and other aerial sources including satellite and aircraft images for both pre- and active- fire detection; real-time wildfire front and ember tracking software for UAVs and aircrafts, and real-time first responder tracking and monitoring software for UAVs for active fires; and generative AI for fire severity classification maps post-fire.

“It’s a little hard to believe that we were doing the modeling side for this,” Martinez said. “Then we applied for the NASA challenge, and it took off from there.”

Rong, Lara, and Marquez spent three days in DC as part of the NASA pitch. They presented their ideas to NASA experts and venture capitalists alongside eight other teams. Three winning teams each received a $100,000 prize.

“The pitch experience was an honor to be a part of,” said Lara, a junior. “Not only because I was able to represent the team, but because I was able to meet so many passionate individuals from NASA, venture capital firms, including Lowercarbon Capital and SanPete Financial Group, and contestants from other universities.”

This is hardly the end of the road for Team FireSENSE; NASA invited thre of the remaining six teams, the runners-up, to participate in their Wildfire Technology Management Cohort, a 30-day immersive learning experience to develop and refine their business idea and gain wildfire technology skills and knowledge. In addition to remote learning, members of the FireSENSE team are invited to attend the IDGA Wildfire Technology Management Conference in Pasadena, California, in April, as guests of NASA.

Watch Team FireSENSE’s pitch video to learn more about their work.