There’s a new use for 5G networks: spotting wildfires before they get out of control, an increasing worry as climate change makes fires spread faster and burn longer than before.
The startup Pano AI uses a series of cameras that survey the wilderness and AI algorithms that watch for telltale smoke — an indicator of small blazes that could grow into raging wildfires. That footage is sent to the startup’s headquarters for human confirmation, and if a fire is burning, evidence is sent to clients who could be affected.
While Pano AI had been sending evidence photos over 4G LTE networks at slow rates of around 20 to 30 6-megapixel images per minute, its new partnership with T-Mobile has it using the carrier’s 5G network to send video at 30 frames per second, which is around 90 times more data. Ultimately, getting evidence to Pano AI’s clients, which include utility companies, much quicker on 5G means a faster response from firefighters and potentially squashing big fires before they get dangerous.
“The ultimate problem we’re solving is megafires, and we’re helping fire departments deploy a new strategy that is gaining popularity, which is to put more resources on the fire earlier,” said Sonia Kastner, CEO of Pano AI.
Rather than slowly increase the amount of fire trucks and aircraft flying in to drop extinguishing payloads as the fire grows, Rapid Initial Attack is a new strategy to send all those resources as soon as the fire is detected immediately. Naturally, having a network of fire-spotting cameras helps direct those resources to the right locations quickly.
Pano AI works with a number of utilities, governments, fire authorities, forestry companies and private landlords who in turn work with local emergency responders. Its newest client and the first with a system using T-Mobile’s 5G network is Portland General Electric (PGE), a utility supplying gas and electricity to 16 million customers around Portland, Oregon. Pano AI has 20 cameras set up in the forests surrounding the city that give 10-mile panoramic views, which include powerlines. This lets PGE know if fires are headed toward its infrastructure.
T-Mobile recruited Pano AI to be part of its Innovation Lab alongside other companies harnessing 5G to improve their services, such as Mixhalo, which is using the carrier’s 5G network to pipe in concert audio directly to audience members’ phones. But Pano AI’s partnership goes deeper, as it’s mounting its cameras on T-Mobile’s cell towers, saving months of time and paperwork needed to request and install its equipment on other signal towers or similar vantage points.
Pano AI is expecting better coverage than the 4G LTE it was using after committing to implementing T-Mobile’s 5G network with future client solutions too. The network will cover even more rural areas with the over 7,000 additional midband 5G licenses the carrier acquired in last week’s spectrum auction. That should cover areas that challenged Pano AI in the past, like prior clients that were so remote they needed subscriptions to SpaceX’s Starlink service or even private LTE networks requiring new towers to be built — a costly process that can take lots of precious time to get up and running, Kastner said.
“And the wildfires don’t wait,” Kasner said.
While Pano AI’s algorithms only spot smoke at the moment, its cameras are capturing a lot of data that the startup’s clients want to sift through for other indicators of fire safety, like building of brush that could fuel wildfires. In the future, Pano AI’s tech could be advanced to spot indicators of other weather-related calamities such as floods or hurricanes, Kastner said.
For now, Pano AI has over a dozen clients spread across five US states and two Australian states. They’re based primarily in the Western US, though the startup is in talks with potential clients in other areas that are also suffering more wildfires, such as Florida and Tennessee. 5G will help Pano AI grow its tech and services.
“5G actually lowers the cost of prediction, which increases the scale of prediction as well,” said John Saw, executive vice president of advanced and emerging technologies at T-Mobile.