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Greek-Americans Launch $11 Million XPRIZE Initiative to Combat Wildfires

Wildfires XPRIZE
Wildfires have claimed lives and caused widespread destruction in Greece. Credit: Greek Reporter/Konstantinos Balalas

Greek-American entrepreneurs have recently joined forces to launch the $11 million XPRIZE worldwide initiative to combat wildfires.

XPRIZE Wildfire is a 4-year global competition that will provide funding to teams able to develop and demonstrate fully-autonomous capabilities to detect and extinguish wildfires.

The initiative was launched by Peter H. Diamandis, Executive Chairman of the Board of XPRIZE, a leader in designing and operating large-scale incentive competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges and Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, president & CEO of ECOS, a leading green products manufacturer, and member of the board of directors of XPRIZE.

“We have been fighting wildfires the same way for decades – it’s not working, and the destruction is getting increasingly worse. We need a radical re-invention of how we detect and battle these blazes,” said Diamandis.

“The convergence of exponential technologies such as AI, robotics, drones, and sensors offer us the opportunity to detect wildfires at inception, and put them out in minutes before they spread – that’s the mission of this XPRIZE.”

Deadly Mati wildfire a catalyst for action

Vlahakis-Hanks had a first-hand experience of the devastating effect of wildfires after the 2018 disaster at Mati in east Attica that claimed the lives of 102 people and burned 2,500 homes.

One week after the disaster she walked through the burned-down town providing ECOS products to help in the cleanup.

Wildfires XPRIZE
Eleni Arvaniti (left) and Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks donate ECOS products to help in the cleanup after the Mati wildfire.

“As I met with survivors and heard their harrowing stories, both on the streets and at the distribution center in Nea Makri, I was overcome by the profound gravity of so much pain and loss,” she tells Greek Reporter.

“Meeting with the children and administrators at the devastated site of the Lyreio orphanage broke my heart. I certainly wanted to do more than help with the cleanup; I wanted to make sure this type of tragedy never happened again.”

When Peter Diamandis asked her to join the board of directors of XPRIZE, Vlahakis-Hanks was “thrilled” for the opportunity to be part of an organization that is incentivizing real solutions to some of the world’s greatest problems, including wildfire risk.

After all – she adds – our mission at ECOS is to protect human and planetary health, and that’s why we create our safer cleaning products in climate-positive facilities.

“But we have to do more, so I’m proud to serve on the board of XPRIZE and work on XPRIZE Carbon Removal, XPRIZE Wildfire, XPRIZE Biodiversity + Conservation, and XPRIZE Coral Restoration.”

XPRIZE wildfires to bring together the brightest minds

“We can no longer fight fires the way we did 100 years ago; we have to bring together the brightest minds so that we can eradicate the pain and suffering of people all over the globe caused by these fires,” Vlahakis-Hanks says.

Around the world, the severity of Extreme Wildfire Events (EWEs) is increasing, driving over 80% of fire-related damages globally and costing approximately $350 billion in damages annually in the United States alone.

EWEs spread at a faster rate and burn larger areas at higher intensities, wreak havoc on ecosystems, cause long-term global economic burdens, and often result in devastating injuries and loss of life.

Despite these high environmental and economic costs, fire management technologies have not evolved significantly in decades and best practices have not changed in almost a century.

“We have new technologies that can give firefighters the upper hand in controlling these wildfires before they cause catastrophic damage,” Vlahakis-Hanks says.

New technologies such as AI, robotics, drones, and sensors can give us the ability to detect wildfires during the critical first few minutes, helping to save precious lives, communities, and ecosystems.

“XPRIZE Wildfire is creating the incentive we need for the best minds in the world to combat this terrible threat,” Vlahakis-Hanks says.

XPRIZE Wildfire

XPRIZE Wildfire will incentivize teams from around the world to innovate across a wide range of technologies in two complementary tracks designed to transform how fires are detected, managed, and fought.

In the Space-Based Wildfire Detection & Intelligence track, teams will have one minute to accurately detect all fires across a landscape larger than entire states or countries, and 10 minutes to precisely characterize and report data with the least false positives to fire managers on the ground.

In the Autonomous Wildfire Response track, teams will need to monitor at least 1,000 km2, and autonomously suppress a wildfire within 10 minutes of detection.

The $1M Lockheed Martin Accurate Detection Intelligence Bonus Prize will be awarded for innovations in the accurate and precise detection of wildfires.

“In recent years, we have seen a dramatic increase in destructive wildfires across the Western United States. In California, 18 of the 20 biggest fires in the state’s history have happened since 2000,” said California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis.

“By investing in state-of-the-art firefighting technology, California will be more prepared than ever to face wildfires and protect our high-risk communities.”

XPRIZE Wildfire is offered in partnership with Co-Title Sponsors Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Presenting Sponsor Minderoo Foundation, Bonus Prize Sponsor Lockheed Martin, Supporting Sponsor Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and benefactors Nichola Eliovits and Michael Antonov.

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