Stephen Achal loves the stars and thought he would end up working in academia or astronomy. But, after being exposed to the data behind climate change, he decided he needed to help.

Now he is, by starting 4pi Lab, which develops cameras and telescopes to improve the early detection of forest fires.

Achal remembers the first time he saw stars in the night sky. As a four-year-old living in Wolverhampton, England, Achal almost never had a clear view of the sky. One night, a small patch in the clouds opened up and he was awestruck by the beautiful view. He wanted to know more. This began a lifelong love affair with the universe and the stars.

Achal’s time in England was short lived. At age eight, Achal and his family were told by a doctor that the smog-filled skies were no place for a boy with asthma. They chose to move to Calgary because of its air quality. Achal remembers being mesmerized by the expansive blue skies and the twinkling black nights. The image, burned into his mind, only further fueled his curiosity for the universe.

Achal attended the University of Calgary, majoring in astrophysics. He spent much of his time as a student designing telescopes and optical systems.

In the 1980s, Achal was working on his graduate project, developing an imaging device designed to look at ultraviolet light destined for a space shuttle mission. He was sure he would end up in academia after his project was completed. However, after he and his wife spent much of their savings traveling the world, Achal returned to Calgary broke and in need of work. He turned to his project supervisor and CEO of ITRES Research, Clifford Anger, who offered Achal a job. Anger needed Achal’s skills in designing optics and telescopes designed to look at Earth.

“I reluctantly agreed to a two-month contract to pay off some of my debt from travelling,” says Achal. “that two months has turned into more than thirty years of wonderful adventures and experiences at Itress.”

Achal spent his time at Itress Research designing systems that not only worked from the air, but also from the International Space Station. The system monitored the changes in the environment, which were startling.telescopeThis is an example of one of 16 telescopes destined for a satellite. This telescope will be fitted to one of many satellites to be sent into orbit to monitor for forest fires. Photo by Dylan LeDuke
“The news isn’t good,” he says, “It’s changing dramatically. And unfortunately for you and the future generations, you guys are inheriting a very different world.”

While climate change has always been a part of Achal’s work, he realized he could do more.

“I thought that instead of being a voyeur watching — you know, designing systems and doing research and watching how our planet is changing — to be proactive, and to start to do something about it to try and help curb the effects of climate change.”

This feeling lead Achal to leave Itress Research and to start his own company, 4pi Lab. The six-month-old company is armed with a five year plan to tackle climate change in its own unique way. With forest fires being a massive contributor to climate change every year, Achal’s team designed a way to detect them before they become a problem.

The solution, says Achal, is a camera designed to detect potassium that has reached more than 500 degrees Celsius. When potassium, which is found in all vegetation, reaches this temperature, it ionizes and emits a light that is easily spotted by these cameras. The excited potassium imaging cameras, or EPIC cameras for short, can shrink in size from about a metre in diameter to ten centimetres in diameter, so they are perfect for satellites.

“Sixteen of these satellites equipped with these epic cameras can map the entire planet once every six hours looking for very, very small wildfires — you know, 10 metres or smaller worldwide,” explains Achal.

With the ability to detect forest fires much earlier, Achal believes it will give responders more time to make the decision to put out the fire or let it run its course. Achal thinks his system will be the next paradigm in forest fire detection. But starting something of this scale is a big undertaking, and Achal says funding is going to be a challenge. The whole project is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We have our fingers crossed that billionaire philanthropists will look at this cause and fund at least the initial part of this development,” says Achal. “Because the amount of cash we need to get started is enormous.”

4pi Lab is starting with a goal of raising $75 million to fund the launching of their first satellite in three years.

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Editor: Isabelle Bennett | 

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