Shaping South Africa through science

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Source: SABC News, Author: Sarah Wild, Excerpt from “Shaping South Africa through science”

All it takes is a spark. Perhaps two blades of bone-dry grass rub together, or someone leaves a fire unattended and a warm breeze picks up. What starts as an apparently insignificant scintillation blossoms into a flame that begins to grow and leap, wreaking havoc.

Satellites are watching these conflagrations as they occur, and transmitting this information thousands of kilometres back to Earth. Automated SMSes start sounding on cellphones in South Africa, and more recently in other African, South American and European countries, informing clients of impending or real- time fires.

This, according to researchers who developed this system at the Meraka Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), is the real value of their Advanced Fire Information System (Afis).

‘It brings the data to you in your hand,’ says Lee Annamalai, earth observation competency manager at the Meraka Institute, which is the CSIR’s information and communication technology unit. He points at my smartphone. ‘Anyone can go online and use it.’

On the Afis map – at – the African continent looks like an artist’s palette: red and yellow splotches colour the southern tip of South Africa as the hot summer fires spread through the Cape; further north over Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, it appears as though the artist is mixing a large swath of autumn tones: orange, yellow and russet. These are fires of differing intensity, transmitted to the Afis website in real time by satellites.

‘All those dots and spots you see on the map? Those are fires burning right now,’ says Annamalai.

The system allows for real-time identification and warning of fires, as well as an automated text system to warn that a particular area is burning, or about to ignite.

For citizens, fires put our lives and others’, not to mention belongings, in danger, but governments and large corporations with infrastructure worth billions of rands also have to worry about their investments. This is why South African electricity parastatal Eskom has been involved in Afis’ development since inception.

On the power utility’s website, Hein Vosloo, a specialist in Eskom’s transmission unit, has stated: ‘If you look at South Africa, our power stations are typically in the northeastern part of the country, but on the other end, about a thousand miles away, we have Cape Town. Between Cape Town and the power stations, there are about 28 000 kilometres of high-voltage transmission lines. I remember in 2002, we had 35 line faults on one day. On that particular day, we lost our power supply to Cape Town because two of our major lines went out as a result of two fires, which were 295 kilometres from each other.’

Eskom has Afis in its control centre in order to gauge what is happening at a national level, says Annamalai.

The entire system hinges on data from a ‘multitude of satellites’, both geostationary and polar orbiting. ‘Because polar satellites are closer to Earth, they offer higher resolution and are able to detect smaller fires, but they take images only three times during the day and three times at night’, Annamalai says.

The polar-orbiting satellites – called Terra and Aqua, which belong to Nasa and have Modis (moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer) equipment on board – scan southern Africa daily, between 10am and 11.30am (Terra) and 2pm and 3.30pm (Aqua).

According to Nasa, Terra and Aqua have a viewing range of about 2330 kilometres and can view the entire surface of Earth every one to two days.

The geostationary satellite – in this instance, the Meteosat Second Generation (MSG) satellite, operated by the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites – is much further away, at 36 000 kilometres, and so can only detect large fires on a continuous basis. Afis gets data from MSG every 15 to 20 minutes.

‘It’s just a hot-spot detector,’ Annamalai says. ‘There are infrared cameras on the satellites and we run algorithms to take out false alarms: things that burn all the time, like coal stacks, or reflections on water. We built and wrote all of that code ourselves. In the fire season, which starts in June, we can process up to 10 000 fire events a month.’

However, Afis does not only tell the public (on its website) and its clients (via SMS, Twitter or email), among others, about fires after the fact, but also predicts whether an area is in danger of wild fires.

‘We use weather data and scientific models of an area’s fire-danger index. Each model is specific to an area. For example, in Mpumalanga we use a lowveld fire- danger model, buy forecasted weather data and weather station information on the ground, put that all into the model and measure the dryness of the vegetation on the ground using the satellite data,’ says Annamalai.

This information is provided on a separate panel on the Afis website.

‘When you’ve got a dangerous-to-extreme fire-danger index, there is a high likelihood that, if a fire breaks out, you won’t be able to control it. We predict the fire-danger index and make the information available so you are better prepared,’ he states.

The satellite data is supplied to Afis researchers by the South African National Space Agency’s earth observation directorate, says director Jane Olwoch. ‘Some of the data they use for Afis is supplied by us.’ The Modis data is free because South Africa is part of the international Group on Earth Observations.

About 10 years in the making, the fire-detection system has cost about R15 million, obtained from the government and Eskom, which has funded ‘investment into research and development, the systems, mobile apps and models, to assess the data and receiving stations’, Annamalai says. ‘South Africa remains our core base,’ he says, but mentions that the team ‘is putting more effort into global expansion’.

Afis is running pilot projects in Portugal, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. But Africa is also very much on the Afis radar: ‘We’re covering the whole of East Africa, using a node in Nairobi, and are setting up a node in Ghana to cover West Africa,’ says Annamalai.

In 2013, the CSIR signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Technology Centre of the Angolan Ministry of Science and Technology to pilot the Afis technology in that country, which has the highest incidence of fires in Africa.

‘The system is already live globally. We’ve been searching for other commercial clients, such as power utilities, in other parts of the world, or forest plantations in South America. We hope to turn those pilots into commercial operations once Afis has proved its value,’ Annamalai says.

Luke Radebe, the deputy director in the National Veld and Forest Fire Oversight Unit of the Department of Environmental Affairs, states that the department is using Afis, albeit ‘in a limited capacity, but we want to use it further to get statistics and integrate it with other data. We are engaged with other stakeholders.’

But this is only the beginning for the Afis team, which is planning to turn their software and early-warning detection system into a spin-off company: Terranexus. ‘We’ve got a nice brand ethos behind it,’ Annamalai enthuses. ‘When you talk to Terranexus, you know that you’re talking to the tech guys … We understand the technology and its applications in the business environment.’

Original article