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Can tech tackle the growing threat of devastating bushfires?

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 06 October 2020, 11:14 am

It seems like a distant memory now, but in January of this year over 46 million acres of land had been scorched across Australia in the country's most devastating bushfires on record.

By early October, over 8,000 fires had burned over four million acres in California, four per cent of the states 100 million acres of land, in another record wildfire season. Over the weekend, we also got a taste of what could prove to be a summer of wildfires here, with fires destroying 20 homes and forcing people to evacuate at Lake Ōhau. Oher flare-ups keeping firefighters busy in the South Island and the far north and we have summer still to come.

Climate scientists suggest many areas of the world, including parts of New Zealand, will face the prospect of more intense wildfires as the climate warms, a problem exacerbated by land development being pushed further into wooded areas. That's a particular problem in California, the most populous state in the US, where a need for new land has seen towns and subdivisions established in areas that were previously wildlands.

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Images of forest fires taken from the Firebird remote sensing satellites

Burned to the ground

President Trump attracted withering comments last week when he again maintained during a presidential debate with rival Joe Biden that California's wildfire woes could be blamed on poor "forest management" rather than the impacts of climate change.

"You know, at some point, you can't, every year, have hundreds of thousands of acres of land just burned to the ground," Trump said.

Many will have been in agreement about that, but there's less agreement about how to tackle the problem. Experts suggest land management practices do need to change. But with sizeable communities committed to living in dry, wooded areas and continuing urban sprawl, some are looking to technology to try and avoid more record-setting bush fires.

The Canberra-based Australian National University has teamed up with mobile operator Optus to develop a national system for detecting bushfires earlier and putting them out quickly. 

Fire-detecting satellites

The ANU-Optus Bushfire Research Centre of Excellence has kicked off a five-year programme to develop "autonomous ground-based and aerial fire detection system". 

The plan includes launching a "constellation of satellites" by 2022, which would be managed by ANU and help spot and track fires from space. 

Infrared cameras, drones, robotics, sensing systems and data analytics will also be harnessed to come up with better fire detection systems and ways of fighting bush fires.

"When it comes to fires, every second counts and there is no point detecting fires quickly if they cannot be extinguished quickly," ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said this week.

"As we saw this season, these fires can cause massive destruction to our environment, homes and infrastructure and they cost lives."

Indeed, bushfires are expected to cost Australia A$30 billion over the next three decades. Modelling by ANU experts suggests early bushfire detection technology could reduce that impact by A$8.2 billion over the same period.  

"We hope to develop a system that can locate a fire within the first few minutes of ignition and extinguish it soon afterwards," added Schmidt. 

"ANU is designing and looking to build highly innovative water gliders with autopilots that will extinguish fires within minutes of them igniting."

A network of infra-red sensors

Optus will contribute mobile networking and satellite capability and expertise to the programme. An early project will involve the ACT Rural Fire Service in pilot putting infra-red sensor cameras on towers in bushfire-prone areas of the capital state.

The ANU-Optus partnership includes the appointment of a joint Chair for Bushfire Research and Innovation, along with a Research and Innovation fund. It is a welcome application of innovation to a pressing issue. But how well advanced is bushfire-fighting technology in general?

It is a fledgeling field of technology, but there are some promising projects underway. The University of San Diego's WIFIRE technology uses artificial intelligence to predict a wildfire's path in real-time allowing fire departments to more effectively deploy firefighters, trucks and aircraft. 

Much experimentation has been done with gliders for wildfire surveillance to help inform firefighting efforts. Gliders can exploit the updraft from forest fires to stay in the air for long periods of time, supplying valuable data to firefighters on the ground.

Bushfire-detecting satellites are already in place. The Firebird satellite programme, backed by the German government, has two remote-sensing satellites equipped with heat sensors in place tasked with detecting forest fires.


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