Using robots to detect forest fires

Rex Sham and his WALL-E-inspired robots are improving fire detection to slash carbon emissions and make the world better.

By: Stephen Craft

If he were in a movie, Rex Sham would be the bad guy, or at the very least the well-meaning scientist who unwittingly wipes out the human race. In reality, Sham, the co-founder and chief science officer of Insight Robotics, is using his ingenious, WALL-E-like fire-detecting robots to save the planet.

What Sham has developed is an automated early warning system that combines a high-precision, pan-tilt robot with thermal imaging sensors and advanced artificial intelligence (AI) vision technology. In its tests of the Computer Vision Wildfire Detection System, the Guangdong Academy of Forestry (Insight Robotics’ research partner since 2010) has recorded a 100 per cent detection rate in multiple field trials and deployments.

At 32, Sham has already co-authored two patents, won awards for his research, and seen his fire-protection systems being used by 41 forestry departments all over China, as well as in his native Hong Kong, private plantations in Indonesia, and in Malaysia and Brazil. His systems now monitor 1.5 million hectares of forest.

“Forest fires are a very big issue all over the world. According to NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], the smoke from those fires contributes about 30 percent of the global carbon emissions every year, making it one of the largest causes of global warming,” Sham says.