How Alchera Entered the Wildfire Mitigation AI Business

Robert Grey

March 17, 2021

March 17, 2021

It was a sunny California morning in May of 2019 when I arrived at San Francisco International Airport for my first business trip with Alchera Inc. I had just joined the visual AI startup as a business development manager a few weeks prior at our headquarters in South Korea. After a short on-boarding, I was packing up and ironically flying back to my home state. While there was plenty of new things to learn about the company, the culture, the technologies, and my new coworkers, I was very familiar with a few key topics that would come up over the next few weeks. For one, I was born and raised in California and had been visiting the Bay Area regularly for the past few years for work. Secondly, was my past work with Plug and Play Tech Center, which was also the driving force behind this business trip. We had been accepted into the international batch program and this was Alchera’s first venture overseas. The primary goal was to discover which technology or solution from Alchera would be valuable to the US market.


Alchera’s CEO Young Hwang presenting at Plug and Play Tech Center in 2019


As we settled into the program I was reviewing Alchera’s past clients and projects, going through each technology in detail, ideating new solutions through a lean canvas model, and discussing with a multitude of mentors and Plug and Play staff members.

Then we had our “aha” moment.

If you have ever been to the Plug and Play HQ in Sunnyvale (or even visited their website), you will have seen the huge wall with the list of industry verticals and corporate partners that looks over the entrance. Logos such as Panasonic, P&G, Coca-Cola, Nintendo, and many, many more. As I was scanning the logos, my eyes fell into the Energy industry vertical and landed on the familiar spotlight logo of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).

“Aha.”

At the time, PG&E was embroiled in a lawsuit as they were “immediately” suspected of causing the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, CA. In addition, they had just announced the appointment of William “Bill” Johnson as Chief Executive Officer and President and the appointment of 10 new directors to its Board of Directors, with safety as the central mission of the company.

Growing up in California, I’ve had many experiences with wildfire. It was in 2003 when San Diego saw its largest fire to date. I was a freshman in high school at this time, and nearly all schools in the county were closed during the week of the fire. I remember driving with my mother to a viewpoint on nearby Mt. Helix to get a better look at the fire. I could see it coming over the mountain pass towards the city, and it really put the severity of the fire into perspective. The sky was an intense hazy orange due to the amount of smoke blocking the sun and I distinctly remember seeing the silhouette of downtown San Diego looking ominously apocalyptic. The fire remains one of California’s largest, costing 1.3 billion USD in damages. By size, it was only surpassed by the recent fires over the last couple of years. In university, we had another firestorm caused by the blustery Santa Ana winds, which when combined with a drought make for high probability fire conditions. While my university was not in the immediate area of danger, it was used as a shelter for those who had been evacuated, many of whom had lost homes. Even more recently, we had family friends lose their homes in the Valley Fire of 2020.





A wildfire spreads in Southern California in 2010


While wildfire is not much of an issue in South Korea by comparison, a large wildfire sparked by the local utility KEPCO (the Korea Power Corporation) did cause them some concern. Following the Goseong Fire of 2019, KEPCO had contacted Alchera to look into visual AI solutions to the root cause of the fire, an extra-high-voltage electric wire that was sparked due to high winds. While we had not deployed that solution, Alchera was already engaged with them in other areas. I went back over the information of the project proposals and the words “fire detection” blazed across the page like wildfire.


The immediate next steps were to define how we could realistically apply this to the US landscape. Thankfully, with Plug and Play’s support, we would have the ability to pitch the concepts to investors, mentors, and the corporations themselves to see what would get their attention and then work out what the true needs and use cases were. In addition, we would need a local partner. While Alchera empowers cameras to be smart cameras, those cameras are not proprietary. We do not supply a specific type of camera, rather preferring to develop AI software which is applicable to any camera, given some use case-specific restraints.


This led me to statements from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and each of the major California utility’s wildfire mitigation plans. There were many mentions of firewatch cameras provided by ALERT Wildfire, a consortium of three universities: The University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), University of California San Diego (UCSD), and the University of Oregon (UO). ALERT provides access to state-of-the-art Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) fire cameras and associated tools to help firefighters and first responders. Through some phone calls and connections from our Plug and Play mentor, we were able to meet with the Professors who started the company.


The rest, as they say, is history.


Over the next two years, Alchera Inc. worked with ALERT Wildfire to continually improve our fire detection algorithms working through the ALERT Wildfire camera network. Alchera developed the AIIR product, made from various cutting-edge deep learning methodologies and a continual learning system to provide cloud-based, early-stage smoke and fire detection in real time, populating the possible smoke detections on a web dashboard and triggering alerts. Since June of 2019, Alchera has been continuously monitoring 200 ALERT cameras, processing millions of images per day, and detecting hundreds of possible fire-starts.


As of March 1, 2021, AIIR is now deployed for Sonoma County’s ALERT Wildfire cameras as the winner of the 2020 machine vision integration system request for proposal by the county.


The dashboard can be found at fire.aiir.ai/sonoma and will continually evolve as we strive to provide value throughout the fire mitigation, detection, and response workflow.

As a tech enthusiast and someone working the AI space, it is a pleasure to see AI being used for good. As a Californian, I am proud to have played a small role in developing and deploying this technology and will continue to support all initiatives which help protect us from human-caused wildfires.


About Alchera: Alchera Inc. is a team of AI experts who solve problems with AI. With world-class speed and accuracy, Alchera deploys systems and hardware agnostic AI technology to society-impacting industries.

www.alcherainc.com
www.aiir.ai

 



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