Project Firewatch Goes to NASA: SJSU Students Map Wildfire Trajectories with Drone Technology

by | May 20, 2024 | Awards and Achievements, Featured, Research and Innovation, Uncategorized

Members of the Project Firewatch team presenting at NASA headquarters in DC as part of the NASA Wildfire Climate Tech Challenge. Left to right: Sofia Silva, ‘24 Software Engineering, Huston Scharnagl,’24 Aerospace Engineering, and Riannon Regan, ‘24 Aerospace Engineering. Photo by Kaija Craft.

It all started with a senior design project. Huston Scharnagl, ’24 Aerospace Engineering, was told early on to choose his project team carefully, and he remembered that Sofia Silva, ’24 Software Engineering, who he’d worked with in the Liquid Rocket Engine Project (LREP) club at SJSU, was a great collaborator. Scharnagl would be the aerospace side, Silva the software, and together they’d build a drone that used wildfire trajectory software to help track and disseminate information about where a fire might be going next.

It was inspired by their own lives as California natives, Silva explains. “When you look at hurricanes on TV, you have an idea of where they start, and where they might eventually go,” she says. “We thought, ‘If we can do that for hurricanes, why can’t we do that with wildfires?’”

And that was the beginning of Project Firewatch. The first hurdle was convincing professors to approve such an interdisciplinary project — that was an easy one. Then, as in all good origin stories, they had to assemble a team. Bo Yang, assistant professor of urban and regional planning, was an early adviser and helped provide data collected by the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center (WIRC) to get the project both literally and figuratively off the ground.

The idea was first developed in May 2023, when the team assembled to build the drone from scratch and create the software. Project Firewatch was ultimately comprised of 11 people, eight on aerospace and three on software.

How it works

The drone contains a first person view (FPV) camera and a thermal camera in its belly that transmits data to the software team as it flies. It’s flown by a drone operator, who wears goggles to help transmit what the drone’s seeing as it flies along the fire line. It can circle a fire and then land safely about a half mile behind the fire line in order to transmit its collected data to the software team.

The software then uses machine learning to detect smoke and fire. The smoke detection can help determine the fire trajectory, and vegetation health data (which analyzes the health or destruction of plants) helps them map the landscape the drone sees onto thermal imaging and improve this trajectory software. They successfully tested the flyable drone with its Firewatch software this May at the Livermore Flying Electrons Airfield. 

From Silicon Valley to NASA

Project Firewatch’s journey to NASA was born out of necessity. Building a drone prototype costs money, and they didn’t have enough. So the team applied for the SpartUp competition and got great responses from the judges.

“One of the videographers said that his family’s from Paradise,” Silva remembers, which was the site of the major 2018 wildfire. “He was saying how impactful this innovation could have been for his family and everyone else around him. And that impacted me because I realized this really could help people. That was the main reason why I wanted to be a software engineer in the first place.”

After SpartUp, they were encouraged to go bigger, so they entered the Silicon Valley Innovation Challenge (SVIC), where they won second place overall for best new innovation out of 147 teams (and a cash prize).

When Yang told them about the NASA Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) Wildfire Climate Tech Challenge, they applied for that as well. Scharnagl calls Silva the “driving force” behind that initiative. They produced a five-page proposal about their project, including scalability and feasibility, as well as a video and another report. By February 2024, they heard that they were semifinalists in the competition, which meant flying out to Washington, D.C. to present to NASA staff in person.

Quite an experience

“When I thought about going to NASA headquarters in DC, I was speechless at first,” Silva remembers. “I didn’t know what to think. It’s surreal that it all happened in the first place.” As a software engineer, she felt slightly out of place at NASA at first, but adds that after the competition, she “sees more of the value of software within these applications of projects.”

The DC Firewatch team, composed of Silva, Scharnagl, and Riannon Regan, ‘24 Aerospace Engineering, who worked on the aerospace team with Scharnagl, had a chance to practice their pitches with coaches before the big day. “The experience was amazing. Everyone there was really nice and helpful and made us feel very supported,” Silva says. 

For his part, Scharnagl calls the experience “the most stressful two weeks of my life,” but the SJSU competitions gave them confidence. “The Silicon Valley Innovation Challenge audience asked us a lot of great questions,” he says. “I think those questions later prepared us for the NASA competition, because you have people from all different walks of life asking you various questions off the top of their heads. Those questions were probably the most valuable thing from the SVIC.”

Their pitch went smoothly and they ended up being named runners up in the competition, along with two other teams. As part of this designation, they’re part of the NASA Innovation (I-Corps) Pilot: Wildfire Technology Management Cohort, which meant the opportunity to attend a virtual program this spring run by Cornell University that will help them “explore their technology’s product-market fit.” They were also invited to attend the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement Wildfire Technology Management Conference this spring.

Their mentor, Yang, couldn’t be prouder: “I’m glad they won the NASA competition and aim to build this into a startup business in Silicon Valley,” he says. “WIRC at SJSU is committed to mentoring and training a diverse group of students across various majors in this critical research area, furthering SJSU’s mission as Silicon Valley’s public university dedicated to research and education.”

The future of Firewatch

The Firewatch drone is now in its third prototype, but the team plans on returning it to WIRC. Silva and other Firewatch team members plan to focus on potentially taking the software to market separately, since it can be integrated into other aircraft. Silva will begin her master’s in engineering this fall at SJSU and Scharnagl is heading to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor for his master’s in aerospace engineering, but they both plan to move Firewatch forward.

“A lot of us think the software is a great individual product and we’d love to see them refine and actually produce this individual product because it could save millions of lives,” Scharnagl says.

“I hope that this will eventually help people,” Silva says. “Going into this, I never expected our senior design project to blow up like it did.

“But seeing all of this work pay off through competitions and seeing the work we did acknowledged by people is very rewarding in itself. Regardless of where this project goes, I still want to develop it and make it better than it is. I’m very excited.”

Stay up to date with Project Firewatch.