Perch's team consists of two students, three professors and a Cal Poly alumni. Credit: Joseph Callenes-Sloan | Courtesy

A team of two Cal Poly students, a Cal Poly alumni and three professors are creating a prototype for a system of devices that will detect and prevent wildfires in California.

The idea for the system originated from a Cal Poly summer undergraduate research project (SURP) which went on to be accepted to the 2020 SLO HotHouse summer accelerator program. The program, which was hosted by Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, selects a small number of candidates each summer and provides students with resources to launch their own startups.

Under their startup name “Perch,” the team has been engineering a system of devices that can be mounted to power lines to collect various data, which will then be used to detect wildfires and predict fire risk in certain areas. 

“We’re going to be mounting the sensors, taking a ton of different data and then using that data to figure out when a fire is really likely to happen and grow rapidly and also detecting wildfires caused by power lines,” electrical engineering senior Emil Erickson said.

The sensors collect various data from their surroundings, such as weather, wind speed and direction, temperature and vegetation around the power lines. All that data will then get funneled into an algorithm that detects either burning or fire risks, which then notifies utility companies or Cal Fire.

“We think this [system] could help utilities be more intelligent in how they do [power] outages if they must do them, and in general, looking at ways to mitigate their risk,” electircal engineering professor Joseph Callenes-Sloan said.

The system could help utility companies address fire-prone areas early, potentially decreasing the need for scheduled power outages, Callenes-Sloan said.

Scheduled power outages, implemented by utility companies to mitigate fire risk during certain weather conditions, have become increasingly frequent in California, leaving over two million customers without power during a shutoff in 2019.

In addition to power outages, many Californians have lost their homes due to the fires and they have also suffered from hazardous air quality for extended periods of time.

A series of historical lightning strikes in August triggered major wildfires which ravaged California for weeks, causing orange skies and ash. It also resulted in the poorest air quality in the world in the Bay Area.

Power shutoffs, lost homes and poor air quality may become more common in the future as a combination of climate change and decades of fire exclusion throughout the state make areas drier, overgrown and more susceptible to burning.

“With climate change coming in, the forests at present are overstocked and unhealthy, and so it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge into a really dangerous situation,” natural resources management and environmental sciences professor Chris Dicus said.

Controlled burns, although helpful, can only do so much as many areas are too overgrown to conduct the burns safely, according to Dicus.

“You can’t just light a match and throw it out there, because it will be Armageddon within seconds,” Dicus said.

Companies like PG&E are attempting wildfire prevention using satellite imagery and drones, however Perch differentiates itself based on stronger accuracy, better detection and lower costs, according to Callenes-Sloan.

Perch has been working with the San Luis Obispo Fire Department, and it is planning to test its system during a controlled burn in October, electrical engineering alumni Michael Tuttle said.

If results are promising, Perch plans to install devices throughout San Luis Obispo and eventually throughout California by partnering with utility companies.

“[Companies are] going to have to evolve and do things in a cleaner way, a more practical way than we’ve been doing in the past,” Erickson said.

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