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Unstoppable Alliance: Intel & McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Combat Wildfires

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Invasive grasses in desert landscapes are fuel for brushfires when in a dry environment. They are the main contributors to the wildfires in California and Australia and pose a risk here in Arizona as well. The brushfires result in a loss of wildlife, human life, and the destruction of acres of land and property. Intel Arizona employee Magdiel Galan-Oliveras took advantage of his wide range of experience in research and artificial intelligence to take on this problem.

Magdiel’s original idea was to clean up trash in desert areas across Arizona using a drone to provide coordinates where trash aerially detected and a rover to collect it. To his surprise, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy reached out to Magdiel and his team with another idea for the business model to eliminate brushfires leveraging the power of technology, by challenging the drone to detect invasive grasses instead. The organization protects over 30,000 acres of land that are inhabited by the invasive grasses, making the area perfect to test an innovative method in which coordinates are relayed to disposal crews to eventually prevent wildfires.

Today, these crews have to make educated guesses to find invasive grasses and go into mostly harsh, hazardous terrain. The drone approach dramatically increases coverage, efficiency, and safety in locating large areas of these grasses for removal. The quicker invasive grasses are removed, the less the chances for it to spread.

Drone technology is utilized to capture images needed to detect the various invasive grasses. In Phase 1 of the project, the drone collected aerial images of a small section of the trail. Phase 2 included volunteers analyzing the photos, then annotating and validating the various invasive and non-invasive plants. Currently the team is working on Phase 3, which includes developing an Artificial Intelligence model that can identify features of different plants to create a ‘profile’ of the invasive grasses. With the collaborative work of Magdiel’s team, Intel, and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, there is hope to one day achieve the goal of eradicating invasive plants and reducing wildfires.

Magdiel, currently a Fab Construction Supply Chain (CFSC) data analyst for Intel, channeled his passion for volunteerism and knowledge of technology to create the business model. With the collaboration, Magdiel is leading a team of volunteers from Intel including those he calls “drone masters”, “AI champions”, and “labeling heroes” to help with the project. Each member of the volunteer group has a vital position in the success of the project. With the help of the drone masters and labeling heroes, the team is able to take aerial photos of the plants and identify invasive species.

The team was awarded an Intel Seed Grant, funding to support employee volunteer projects, which facilitated soliciting much needed AI and labeling support. Except for the drone image capturing on site, an inherent advantage is that all other work can be performed at a computer. In 2020 when the project began and with COVID looming, it offered the unique opportunity to remote volunteer, minimizing physical exposure while maintaining social distancing guidelines at the comfort of the home. Thus, in a visionary move, the opportunity was opened to Intel worldwide, attracting drone enthusiasts and those thirst for AI exposure, into a massive collaboration effort, from sites in Arizona, Oregon, California, even as far as India and Ireland.

The team counts in its ranks drone masters Jacob Krakauer and Steven Girouard in Arizona, AI champions Sarat Poluri, Pradeep Sakhamoori, with support from Phil Howard, Rita Chattopadhyay, Subbu Anandaraj, Igor Safonov, Yong He and Vinila Rose’s Team, and labeling hero teams lead by Jahnvi Soni, David Galus, Kristen Lee’s Team, representing various Intel sites in Arizona, India, Ireland, Oregon and California with more volunteers getting involved as of late. Volunteers have also found a way to get their children involved in the labeling process by drawing polygons in an app enclosing the invasives, providing them intro opportunities into STEM fields.

Over the past two years, the program has attracted the attention and support of the City of Phoenix Sustainability Office, City of Scottsdale and local first responders. Volunteers in several departments, regions and sites of Intel, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, and other local agencies are vital to the progression of the program.

Identifying and minimizing brush fires can greatly impact our local environment, as well as can increase the nation’s ability to decrease the destruction of the fires.

To learn more about Intel in Arizona, visit www.intel.com/Arizona.