5 Questions for Jim Hoffman, Founder Behind Firemapper

jim-hoffman1.jpgIf you can measure it, you can manage it. When the “it” is temperature, even small differences allow you to manage a host of things. Space Instruments, a small San Diego company, has a high-resolution infrared sensing system that helps fight forest fires, contain oil spills, and map chemical pollution flowing into water sources.

One NASA scientist even wants to mount the system on a satellite to monitor infrared emissions he believes foretell earthquakes, although reasonable skepticism about earthquake prediction abounds.

We talked with Jim Hoffman, the company’s founder and technical director, about the company’s main product, Firemapper 2.0, which is typically installed on an airplane and flown over a region under study.

Q: What are the primary uses of Firemapper?
A: First, to map forest fires. Second, to map oil spills in the ocean, and the third being environmental uses, like mapping pollution in coastal water or rivers.

Q: What are your core technologies?
A: Typically, infrared imaging sensors have had to be cooled cryogenically. So you need a refrigerator or liquid nitrogen. We use an uncooled sensor, which we buy from BAE Systems. We take that detector and build up the whole sensor and camera around it. We designed all the mechanisms and mechanical parts. We wrote all the software.

Q: What advantages do they provide over other infrared sensors?
A: Most detectors have to scan across the scene. We use a technology that captures the whole image at once, which minimizes distortions. And we have two proprietary calibration systems to give a very uniform and very good image.

With a lot of other infrared sensors, everything that is warm looks the same. With ours, firefighters can tell the flaming fronts from the ashes that they already put out.

Q: How does it find pollution in a stream?
A: The firemapper is mapping different temperatures, and it is very accurate. It can map temperatures down to 1/10 of a degree Celsius. So, let’s say, some chemicals are leaking into a river and they are five degrees warmer or cooler than the water. We take this image and it just stands out right away where the chemicals are.

Q: Are you looking for funding?
A: We’ve been self-funded. We’re not actively looking, but that is a consideration. We’re looking at some bigger projects now. We’re looking at building a project that would be put on a satellite.

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