California firefighters use Augmented Reality in battle against record infernos

Contextual mapping is giving first responders real-time information about threats as they unfold, and more AR tech could be on the way

As wildfires sweep California amid what's been an uncharacteristically early and hot summer, some fire departments have turned to Augmented Reality to keep personnel in the field informed. It's a trial by fire (if you'll excuse a bad pun) for AR, a technology that's finally beginning to emerge as more than a novelty.

Currently, teams from the Alameda Police Department and the Menlo Park Fire Department are using a technology called EdgyBees, which provides contextual mapping to distributed teams

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.I reached out to CEO and co-founder Adam Kaplan for some insight.

"The unique nature of fighting fires necessitates the use of knowing the precise locations of teams, equipment, and potential hazards," he told me. "EdgyBees augments live video feeds with geo-information layers, including maps, building layouts, points of interest, user-generated markers, and more data layers that provide visual context and operational intelligence."

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According to Kaplan, the technology can be conceptualized by imagining a sports broadcaster chalking up a play on the screen. EdgyBees permits the relay of information like that between parties, effectively acting as a two-way radio for visual information.

"The software and video is available to drone pilots, ground personnel and all distributed personnel and the footage is live streamed back to command and control centers to assist in making critical decisions immediately."

It's not the only AR solution being explored by fire crews. A company called Qwake Tech makes an AR helmet for firefighters that uses thermal imaging, edge detection, and toxicity sensors to give firefighters augmented sense perception in situations where smoke and fumes impair sight.

A similar systems has been developed by EPFL, a university in Switzerland.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are also being used to train first responders, including EMTs.

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One benefit of the EdgyBees technology, and a lesson for AR developers who want to see their tech in the field, is that it's easily deployable across platforms.

"The technology is a downloadable software that supports PCs, iOS, and Android," says Kaplan. "The learning curve is very short -- under 20 minutes." I've spoken with procurement officers for various municipal agencies, and ease of use is definitely a key driver of any decision to adopt a new technology.

The contextual maps currently in use by teams in Alameda and Menlo Park update older tactics that rely on collating physical maps, such as those kept by utilities companies, to identify invisible threats like gas lines.

"Prior to Edgybees, first responders were using a combination of physical maps, video feeds, and two-way radios to communicate."

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