Mitigating One Of The Worst Impacts Of Climate Change
An interview with Carsten Brinkschulte, founder of Dryad Networks.
Climate change has some utterly horrific and devastating side effects. One of the most pressing and obvious right now is wildfires. We are currently only experiencing 0.86 degrees Celsius of global warming above the 20th-century average. Yet even this tiny chance is enough to dry out habitats and allow wildfires to rage like never before. Globally, we are losing twice as many trees to wildfires each year than we were 20 years ago due to the shift to dryer, hotter climates. In fact, since 1971, the global average annual burned area of wildfires increased by 172%! These vast fires are having a ruinous impact. In 2022, global wildfires have emitted 5.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or around 14% of humanity’s total emissions that year. In 2020, air pollution from Californian Wildfires alone increased the risk of heart attack in those exposed by 70%, with smoke causing an estimated 3,000 deaths in the affected population. But global warming will ramp up in the coming decades, with many predicting we will reach 3 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. Studies have shown that for every degree of global warming, the average area burned by wildfires yearly will grow by 600%! In short, we desperately need a viable way to protect ourselves from this ever-encroaching deadly issue. Luckily, I recently interviewed the founder of Dryad Networks, Carsten Brinkschulte, who has an utterly genius way of helping mitigate wildfires. This is how our conversation went.
To get to the specifics of what Dryad Networks is trying to achieve, I asked Carsten, “What is the issue you are trying to solve?”
“At Dryad, we’re working on one of the most fundamental issues of climate that context, CO2 emissions from wildfires and the destruction of biodiversity caused by them. Both biodiversity crisis and climate change are, of course, real threats to humanity’s future. We hope to mitigate the issues of one of the biggest drivers of that, and that is wildfires because they are creating 6 to 8 billion tons of CO2 emissions each year. That’s about 20% of the global emissions [of humanity]. Or, about the same amount that global traffic puts into the air.”
What is Dryad Network’s company mission?
“Well, our mission is to reduce, in particular, the human-induced wildfires, which are about 85% of the [wild]fires.”
“So we’re really focused on eliminating arson, accidents, reckless behaviours and technical faults. Those are causing the vast majority of fire starts. Arson is, in fact, one of the main reasons for wildfires. But it is also the cigarette that someone throws out of a moving truck or the campfire that’s not extinguished properly and then lights up again the next day that causes wildfire. So, it is human-induced wildfires that we want to tackle by detecting them earlier than any other solution. Currently, wildfires are typically detected by people. There are satellites and cameras and drones to some extent being used to detect fires, and they’re doing a good job, but we feel we can complement them with an even better solution. What we have developed is a solution that would detect fires so early that they can be put out easily because they’re still small at the point in time when we detect them, so we want to do what we call ultra-early detection of wildfires.”
What technology are you using to create this warning system and enable firefighters to go and stop these fires before they ever become a problem?
“We’re using gas sensors. So effectively, we’ve developed an electronic nose that you can stick in the forest, and it can smell a fire.”
“It’s actually a green thing the size of the palm of your hand with a solar panel for energy generation. It doesn’t have any batteries, never needs to replace any batteries and uses the gas sensor to actually smell a fire, literally. It scans for hydrogen, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, and then it uses artificial intelligence to identify the patterns that are typical for that of a fire. So we have AI in the sensor and gas sensing to detect the gases that are emitted from the fire, even [when it is] doing what’s called a smouldering phase.”
“This [smouldering phase] can take one three hours before it actually turns into a proper fire, but in between, you have a lot of smouldering going on. There are gases being emitted that you couldn’t detect, but we can.” “In the first hour and a half or two hours, most fires start at the smouldering phase, and our aim is to detect fires at that time so that we can then enable the firefighters to extinguish the fires before they actually start.”
“The idea is that when we detect a fire, a helicopter or a single fire truck should be enough to extinguish the fire at that stage and that you wouldn’t need hundreds of thousands of firefighters or aeroplanes dumping tens of thousands of litres of water on a fire.”
“We hang the sensors on trees. We nail them to the tree stem at about three meters high with a wooden nail. They can stay there for 10 years and do their job of actually detecting fires and alerting firefighters.”
“Three meters is out of reach from people to tamper with them, and they can do their job being close enough to the ground to be really fast. We need about one sensor per hectare, which is about 100 by one hundred meters or the size of a football field.”
“The sensor is a key aspect but the company is called Dryad Networks for a reason because we built networks in the forest. When you go hiking, after a mile or two, you typically don’t have any network coverage because the mobile operators aren’t there. A system like ours that requires connectivity, the sensors have a problem if you deploy them in the middle of the forest right? So we had to solve that problem, and for that, we’ve created the Dryad Network, which basically are mesh gateways talking to each other in a multi-mesh network. That means it’s basically 1 gateway talking to the next talking to the next talking to the next until it actually hits one that is connected to LTE at the fringe of the forest [to send fire warning to operators].”
How many devices do you ultimately want to deploy, and what area would you like to cover?
“So what we’re focusing on really is the whiteland (land not included in a plan for development) urban interface. So, the intersection between humans and untouched nature. That is where most of the fires are started because that’s where people have access to. That is roughly about 10% of actual forested land. So if you take a country, 10% of the forest that will be the area that we aim to address. So take Germany, we’ve got eleven million hectares of forest. So our goal for Germany, if we were to be deployed, would be about a million hectares.”
How do you ensure the devices are environmentally sound?
“[The] vast majority of IoT solutions use batteries and that that is a no-go for for us because lithium-ion batteries can self-igngnite on when they are punctured or when they overheat. They have longevity issues. It’s really not applicable for a solution that’s supposed to stay in the forest for 10 years. So what we’ve done is we’re using solar panels for energy generation, and for energy storage, we use super-capacitors.”
“The devices themselves. They’re not biodegradable. It [made of] plastics, electronics, PCBs and solar panels, so they need to be recycled after ten years of operation. And then they need to be recycled like any other electronic device that you buy and use. We don’t intend, and we don’t expect, our customers to keep them or leave them in the forest.”
“We’ve manufactured so far 20,000 units. We’re planning about 300,000 devices coming out of our factory next year and then and then over the next few years until 2030, our goal is to install 20,000,000 of them. And then certainly when we get to the hundreds and thousands and millions of scale, we do need to provide recycling facilities.”
So, are you looking to try and get this deployed in some developing countries? They could really benefit from it.
“It’s a question of funding and spending on funding for environmental projects is is simply higher in the developed world at the moment. And it’s not just about environmental protection; it is also about protection of people and infrastructure.”
“The wealthier nations have more budget to spend, but they’ve also got more valuable infrastructure, haven’t they, and they’re willing to spend money to protect it. We are an impact for profit. We do want to make a profit and impact. So we obviously focus initially on where we can make a lot of money and protect forests. But eventually, yes, the developing nations are clearly also an area where we can have a lot of impact. And we would like to go, and we will go. We have our first deployment in Chile, for example. Well, it’s not exactly developing that much. It’s already quite developed right?”
“We also would like you know to protect other countries in Africa for example, where quite frankly, we have not yet done any deployments. And we would like to help there to protect natural reserves, for example, from wildfires, which I think would also be very impactful.”
What is the final impact you and Dryad Networks want to have?
“Well, I guess like every startup, we do have ambitious business plans and we we aim to install about 120,000,000 sensors by 2030. That’s our commercial goal. But if we achieve that commercial goal part of our financial plan also calculates the environmental impact that our product and the solutions will have so we not only predict how much revenue and profits we will make from those sensors but also how much CO2 we will be preventing from being emitted to wildfires. And so with 120,000,000 sensors we figure we should be able to prevent about four million hectares of forest from burning, and if we achieved that would prevent a whopping 1.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions and that is a pretty good goal to work for every day.”
We discussed far more during our conversation, from using the network to create verifiable natural carbon credits to protect againsting illegal logging and how Dryad Networks can ensure that natural, healthy wildfires occur. So don’t forget to check out the whole interview on YouTube and various podcasting services or at Planet Earth & Beyond, where you get podcast episodes and interviews a day early.
I am utterly amazed by Dray Networks. The engineering and economics at play are more than within the realms of possibility. Yet, it has the potential to verifiably mitigate more carbon dioxide emissions than the entire carbon capture industry can possibly hope to do by 2030. That alone makes this a brilliant climate solution, but it is only the start of the vast positive impact it can have if Carsten can scale it. So, maybe the future is bright after all.
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