CFI: The Airborne Compact Fire Imager


This project will develop a new instrument, the Compact Fire Imager (CFI), which will deliver unsaturated multi-spectral measurements at high spatial resolution in a form factor that is compatible with the size, weight, and power constraints for NASA’s next generation airborne platforms. The research team will also design and implement an onboard processing system to deliver fire products in near-real time for fire management—a critical step to enable the autonomous operation of CFI on unmanned aerial systems, including high altitude long endurance platforms.

Science Area

Wildfires are becoming more frequent and more severe in the western U.S in response to changes in climate. New extremes in fire weather allow wildfires to burn hotter, faster, and longer, causing unprecedented and cascading impacts on ecosystems and communities. New measurement capabilities for early detection and fire tracking are urgently needed to support fire managers and post-fire remediation challenges associated with large and destructive fires.


CFI is a pushbroom instrument with six spectral bands between the shortwave infrared and thermal infrared, including two channels in the mid-wave infrared specifically designed to detect and characterize flaming and smoldering fires. CFI extends the design and performance of the dual-band Compact Thermal Imager, which collected >15 million images from the ISS, including thousands of fires. The proposed onboard processing approach uses commercial off-the-shelf components and custom software workflows to accelerate the development of autonomous instrument operation.


  • A larger format Strained Layer Superlattice (SLS) detector array improves cross-track resolution and swath width, making it easier for fire managers to collect burn data with high spatial resolution.
  • A custom butcher block filter provides 6 specific bands between 2 – 12 μm to help users detect and characterize flaming and smoldering fires with greater accuracy.
  • An enhanced processor card supports instrument operation and onboard fire detection using machine learning algorithms, allowing CFI to operate autonomously and relay active fire detection information within seconds to users in the field.

Principal Investigator

Douglas Morton is an Earth System Scientist in the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland. He leads an interdisciplinary team at NASA to conduct large-scale ecological research using data from NASA’s satellites and airborne platforms, ecosystem models, and field measurements. Dr. Morton’s work focuses on tropical forests, fires, and food production. He has worked in Brazil for the past 20 years, with an emphasis the dynamics of deforestation, forest degradation, and agricultural management following forest conversionon in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes. Dr. Morton contributes to the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED,, a collaborative effort to characterize the impact of global burned area and carbon emissions from fire activity on the Earth system, and he co-leads NASA’s Earth Information System Fire Project. Dr. Morton is also actively engaged in international efforts to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), and serves as a technical advisor to SilvaCarbon, a US-Government initiative to build capacity in tropical forest countries to monitor and manage their forest resources.