T-Mobile’s 5G fights fire with Pano AI detection system

The 2.5 GHz licenses that T-Mobile just picked up in the FCC’s Auction 108 will go a long way in helping efforts to fight wildfires in many of the rural areas covered by the spectrum.

T-Mobile announced that it has teamed up with Pano AI, a San Francisco-based disaster preparedness company, to deploy 5G-connected cameras for detecting active wildfires.

The deployment announced today involves Pano customer Portland General Electric (PGE), which went through a pilot program to prove out the technology in 2021.

Pano AI worked with the utility to identify high risk areas and utility assets they want to protect around the Portland area, according to Sonia Kastner, CEO of Pano AI.

The technology allows the utility to monitor and detect wildfires faster and more reliably than other methods, according to Larry Bekkedahl, SVP of Advanced Energy Delivery at PGE. “The stakes are high when it comes to detecting wildfires and we need access to breakthrough technologies and reliable connectivity, which both Pano AI and T-Mobile bring to the table,” he said in a statement.

Right now, they’re using T-Mobile’s 600 MHz spectrum, but plans call for using 2.5 GHz as that gets built out, according to John Saw, EVP, Advanced & Emerging Technologies at T-Mobile.

T-Mobile just spent $304 million in the FCC’s latest auction, acquiring more than 7,000 county-based licenses covering 81 million people primarily in rural areas, which will enable Pano AI to get into more remote locations.

Saw was the CTO at Clearwire before it was acquired by Sprint in 2013 and was involved in the early days of getting access to the 2.5 GHz spectrum. “It was a long journey for some of us,” he said. “I’m excited about what we can do with 2.5.”

The spectrum from the latest auction will provide more capacity in places they weren’t able to serve with 2.5 GHz before. “I think it’s a huge win for us,” he said.

Fighting fire with 5G

Pano AI works with utilities, governments, forestry companies, fire authorities and private landowners to deploy its solution. PGE is the first to use Pano AI on T-Mobile’s 5G network.

To detect fires before they get out of hand, the company places cameras at high vantage points, like cell towers, and they’re rotated 360 degrees every minute; images are taken at 10 different positions in each rotation, Kastner explained. The images are uploaded to the cloud.

Images are run through an AI system, which flags areas if it senses there’s smoke. A Pano intelligence center is constantly reviewing the AI detections and filtering out false positives; there’s always a human in the loop. This allows them to create training data that gets fed back into the AI model for further development, she said. When there’s a fire, it sends an alert to clients.

The advantage of using 5G is they can get reliable information to firefighters much faster than using 4G LTE. Once a fire is detected, it can zoom into the fire and stream live high-definition video, taking advantage of the full 30-frames-per-second rate of the camera, she said.  

The objective is to detect fires within the first 10 to 15 minutes of them starting. Basically, if firefighters can get all their resources to a fire within the first two hours, that can potentially prevent thousands of acres of forest from burning.

In one of the more traditional ways, bystanders might spot a fire, but they often have a hard time discerning the severity of the fire and describing the exact location. A fire truck then has to be dispatched, with firefighters driving around trying to find and verify it before bringing in more resources.

With Pano, “we skip all that,” she said.

The feedback that Pano has received is encouraging. The company, which met up with T-Mobile through the 5G Innovation Lab, has partnerships in some of the areas most susceptible to wildfires, including in California, Colorado, Montana and Oregon.

Asked about expansion plans, “we are ready to scale,” Kastner said. Using cellular for backhaul makes it very rapid to scale, she said, noting that T-Mobile’s tower operations team has been a great assist.

The only thing holding back expansion is awareness, which needs to increase at the state and federal level and among the folks who are creating the budgets around disaster resiliency.

“When we can make the public and policy makers and customers aware, there’s very, very strong interest in our solution,” she said. “Wildfires are very, very costly.”