Powering Strong Communities

SRP Program Uses AI-Trained Cameras to Detect Wildfires

Arizona public power utility Salt River Project in May completed the final installations for its smoke detection system pilot program. In collaboration with Poland-based SmokeD, SRP has set up twelve cameras across two testing sites in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest to alert the utility to potential wildfires in its transmission territory.

The pilot program involves two transmission corridor sites. On the center tower of each corridor, SRP installed four SmokeD cameras and one pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera, all of which are powered by mounted solar panels. The SmokeD cameras provide a fixed 100-degree field of view and a ten-mile range, so the four cameras provide 360-degree visibility. The utility elected to install the fully moveable PTZ camera to provide backup 360-degree visibility and vertical tilting as an extra security measure.

In addition to the multi-camera central towers, each site features a singular camera on either end of the transmission corridor, also mounted on a tower, pointed toward the center. These cameras will monitor the towers for equipment issues. Because the cameras are trained over time by viewing their surroundings, SRP believes the cameras may be able to detect changes or failures in equipment in the same way they can learn to identify wildfire smoke.

The cameras’ AI training involves photo alerts sent via public cellular network to a cloud-based portal, viewable by both SRP and SmokeD. The alert can then be classified as either accurately capturing wildfire smoke or mistakenly flagging things such as campfire smoke. The alerts also include the incident’s azimuth, estimated latitude and longitude, and a map of the projected location.

During a prescribed fire earlier year, the cameras alerted SRP to smoke approximately four miles from the camera’s position less than 90 minutes after the start of the fire.

Like much of the western United States, Arizona has suffered from the increased rate of wildfires in recent years. While SRP has not been impacted by these fires as directly or widely as some other utilities, SRP Fire Mitigation Officer Floyd Hardin said, “We’ve had some big ones” Some fires in recent years have burned as many as half a million acres. Those fires pose a danger to electric transmission equipment, as well as the forested watershed from which SRP draws the water it supplies to its service territory.

The threat of damage to equipment or territory led SRP to explore SmokeD’s offerings following a cold call from the company. The cameras have been previously installed in Europe and California on media towers and buildings, but they had not been used on transmission towers before this project. SRP opted to pursue a pilot program that would allow the utility and SmokeD to understand how easily and effectively the detection system could be mounted to utility infrastructure. The equipment package cost $150,000, with SRP spending roughly an additional $100,000-$150,000 on in-house engineering, design, and labor to create the mounting system, according to Hardin.

In these early stages of the program, SRP hopes to determine what sort of router and antenna provides the best cellular connection for the cameras to contact the cloud-based network. In the long term, the goal is to share the resource and results with entities like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Hardin said, “We’re just trying to marry the technologies with the fire agencies.” He also believes that the project’s continued success will allow those entities to invest in similar infrastructure more directly, saying, “We’ve spent a bit of money on R&D where the feds can’t, and now that they’re seeing it implemented effectively, they can step in and get involved.”

In addition to the cameras, SRP has invested in fire-resistant mesh, which it now installs on all new poles in pre-determined danger zones. Moreover, the utility recently concluded its “Forest 500” effort, which cleared more than 250 miles of brush growing near transmission lines. This process, undertaken every five years, helps proactively prevent damaging fires under SRP’s critical 500kV transmission lines running from northeastern Arizona to the valley.

SRP has also applied for a Department of Energy Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships program grant, which it hopes will fund the installation of SmokeD cameras across seven more sites – totaling between an additional 28 and 35 cameras – throughout the utility’s water and electric footprint. SRP expects to have a response to the second phase of its application in the fall or winter of this year.