A robot eye spotted a Breckenridge wildfire before (almost) anyone else

A smart camera mounted to a cell tower just might have saved a Breckenridge neighborhood from a disastrous wildfire this past Sunday.

“Right about the same time the first hiker came along and was noticing the fire, we were getting the Pano AI alert,” says Summit County undersheriff Peter Haynes, reporting back on the Wellington Fire just north of Breck on July 7.

“When that fire first broke out, our fire partners and the sheriff’s office all got the alert and a video stream of that fire start,” he says.

This 360-degree camera, known as Pano AI, belongs to Xcel Energy. It is one of 28 they own across the state and one of two right here in Summit. All are equipped with AI made to know the difference between smoke and plumes of dust, or even a backyard fire pit.

“It’s not the thermal piece as much as it is the smoke,” Haynes told county commissioners, when asked what the robot eye can and can’t see. “That AI piece is determining what is smoke, and then sending that through an alert.”

Haynes can only imagine the potential in more remote areas.

“Here we were really close,” he says, referring to the Wellington, where homes are tightly clustered, and most people are year-round, full-time residents. “But if it was somewhere back in the forest, we wouldn’t have hikers, bikers, someone else going by them right away. So we need this type of technology.

These robot eyes cost more than a BMW M4. Summit County commissioner Eric Mamula says it’s a small price to pay.

“$80,000 seems cheap insurance for what the potential damage it could save,” Mamula says. These robot eyes are not infallible. The other Xcel camera at Lake Hill has been tricked by campfire smoke.