Wildfire fighting tech a national ‘Beat Blaze’ finalist

University of Hawaiʻi

wildfire burning on a mountain

A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa-led innovation to aid in the fight against wildfires reached the finals of a national hackathon competition. Team leader Marc Ivan Manalac, a third-year computer engineering student, and three other college students in the U.S., created a plan for a long-range outdoor fire detecting system in just two weeks.

Manalac’s team was one of 10 finalists out of more than 450 entries in the “Beat the Blaze” competition hosted by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN). Although his team did not win one of the three $15,000 top prizes, Manalac still hopes to apply for other funding opportunities to further develop the technology for use in Hawaiʻi.

Tech to combat wildfires

person smiling at camera
Marc Ivan Manalac

Wildfires are common in the U.S., including Hawaiʻi, especially during the summer months in dry brush areas exposed to strong winds. The competition challenged participants to increase the information sharing capacity and capabilities between the National Guard and emergency response agencies during wildfire operations.

The team’s concept involves dispersing multiple low powered nodes to high risk areas. The devices include wind, humidity and infrared sensors, a battery and a solar panel. The data that the devices collect would be transmitted to emergency response agencies using a long range, low-powered wide-area network that operates similar to radios. Manalac said his team’s concept stemmed from an idea he had to use the technology to locate missing hikers in Hawaiʻi.

“It was a nice project making a proof of concept to show that it is possible to scale this technology and to not only use it for those agencies, but we can use it commercially, or for the state or for something smaller,” Manalac said.

Manalac, who was born in Guam, but later moved to ʻEwa Beach and graduated from Campbell High School, recalled several recent fire incidents on Oʻahu‘s Leeward Coast.

“There were a few fires here around Waiʻanae. Applying our technology to fire prone areas in Hawaiʻi to increase first responder time would be really great,” Manalac said.

Gloria Choo, UH’s NSIN program director in the Office of Innovation and Commercialization, said, “Having Marc as a finalist to NSIN’s Beat the Blaze Hackathon brought light to UH’s talent. Marc and his team were able to provide an innovative tool to a real world problem facing a military unit and would potentially be a solution on the island. Our intent is to have Marc and students like him leverage opportunities at UH through the Office of Innovation and Commercialization as well as startups and venture communities to further develop his technology.”

Valuable experience

Manalac’s team was one of three finalists made up entirely of students, and the only team that was formed at the start of the competition. He entered as an individual hoping to get experience and met the others, who shared similar interests, through Discord, a messaging platform.

“There was a lot working against us, but it was great to see where we could get to with just work ethic and creativity,” Manalac said.

Manalac is attending UH Mānoa after serving as a U.S. Navy master-at-arms with the military police force. After graduating, he hopes to work in a STEM field in Hawaiʻi.

“There’s a lot of opportunities out there and as UH students, it’s great to see that we are capable of having good solutions that can be noticed from different agencies and we can apply our knowledge that we are gaining right now,” Manalac said.

UH Mānoa’s bachelor of science degree in computer engineering is a joint program offered by the College of Engineering and the Department of Information and Computer Sciences.

Manalac’s work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goals of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF) and Enhancing Student Success (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

—By Marc Arakaki

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