Student wins research competition with project mapping wildfire fuels

President and CEO Larry Rosia said Saskatchewan Polytechnic is focusing on student success, especially during a “challenging time” from COVID-19. (Herald file photo)

A Prince Albert student’s efforts to build a better way to map and track changes to the makeup of the province’s forest has been chosen as this year’s Saskatchewan Polytechnic Applied Research Student Showcase.

This year’s showcase was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It featured 39 project videos focused on solving real-world problems. The videos were adjudicated by judges and industry partners.

“The Applied Research Student Showcase is an important annual event and we are excited to share and celebrate the innovative work of our students,” said Dr. Larry Rosia, president and CEO. “Congratulations to all of the students in this year’s virtual showcase on a job well done.”

Rosia said applied research assesses a need, proves a concept and tests new products to refine and ready them for the market.

“The Applied Research Student Showcase demonstrates the innovative thinking that exists at Saskatchewan Polytechnic,” says Susan Blum, associate vice-president, Applied Research and Innovation. “All students participating have previously received a $1,000 scholarship to assist with their research. Congratulations to this year’s winners. You truly are leading the way.”

The winner of the first prize, and $1,000, was Bradly Weir, a Geographic Information Science student in Prince Albert. Weir worked with the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency to improve processes for mapping vegetation — or fuel types — to better prepare for and manage wildfire.

In his video, Weir explained that two classification systems exist, one nationally and a more Saskatchewan-specific classification used locally. Maps classify the land cover based on the type of vegetation and tree type.

The maps need to be updated periodically to ensure that the information the wildfire management branch has is as accurate as possible. Typically, that’s done in small chunks using digital image classification. Each pixel is analyzed and assigned a value.

That requires purchasing high-resolution satellite images and contracting out the work, making it time-consuming and expensive.

Weir worked with GIS systems to come up with a process where the computer could adapt and learn, making the process more accurate, timely and affordable. The end goal was better data on the condition of the forest.

Better data would result in “better management of forest resources and also better protection of northern communities,” Weir explained.

To do this, Weir identified pixels with similar values and hand drew 500 samples to train the software. The accuracy of the final output, he said, was “relatively good.

“I think I had quite a bit of success,” Weir said.

His research tackled the Philion fire area from the 2015 wildfire season.

“I used a variety of techniques and skills I learned in the GIS program and I was able to come up with a fairly accurate and valid map product for the fire area.”

The project, he explained, is less about the map and more about the concept and process.

“The remapping of these areas is a pretty timely and expensive endeavour because it requires the purchase of satellite imagery and a lot of work to produce it,” he said.

“Knowing what areas need to be updated and when would ultimately help them prioritize the location for doing future work like this.”

Weir said he’s only had a few conversations with wildfire management since finishing his research project.

“The intent …. Was to help them develop a process so they could move this in-house and they could make better use of their resources and improve their data set,” Weir said.

“It may not be the exact approach or methodology that I used, but I think I laid out a good blueprint or path forward that can help them pick the next step forward and start doing some of that work in-house.”

The ministry wasn’t the only one to benefit from the project. Weir came away learning lessons of his own.

“It really brought together the skills and concepts I learned throughout the GIS program and forced me to bring those together and apply it to a real-world problem,” he said.

“Getting hands-on experience is really when you’re going to test and apply and learn new skills. It really helped me broaden my skills in GIS and remote sensing.”

  Other showcase winners include Andrew Ashton, who worked on cribbage for persons with reduced vision, Benno Unger who worked on a car parking sensor, Andrew Brittner who worked on the development of a project GIS for the former Husky Refinery site in Moose Jaw and Edward Lafayette, who worked to integrate a “living machine” into a building design.

Businesses and industry partners who work with students get to keep their intellectual property, Saskatchewan Polytechnic said. For more on the winning projects, visit saskpolytech.ca and click on the news tab.

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