Mini-satellites on bushfire patrol

Mini-satellites on bushfire patrol

3 January 2007

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Australia — A German plan to use miniature satellites to help end the annual destruction wreaked by bushfires in Australia has won the backing of insurers, state governments and firefightingauthorities.

With bushfires costing almost $100 million a year and claiming an annual average of six lives, authorities are looking for solutions to the summer menace.

The $300 million German system uses a network of up to eight mini-satellites – each about the size of a washing machine – to cover any point on Earth every 90minutes, detecting minute differences in temperature.

According to its backers, the system will provide photographs and infra-red heat images of chosen points that will allow the detection of fires not much bigger than a campfire.

It is expected to revolutionise firefighting, allowing planes to be quickly dispatched to snuff out lightning strikes before they turn into infernos. This summer, aerial firefighting has been hampered by the inability to reliably detect small blazes and, once fires are raging, to find the hotspots amid heavy smoke.

As Victoria continues to grapple with a blaze that has burnt almost 900,000ha, destroyed 31 houses and claimed one life, fire authorities are clamouring for the kind of information provided by the system.

Peter Moar, a project manager with the AUSBIRD venture, said the system could see through smoke and broadcast back to Earth the location and intensity of the bushfire within four minutes.

“It has the ability to track and archive fire events with such a resolution and scale never seen before,” he said.

The project is a joint venture between German aerospace agency DLR and technology companies Berata and Kayser-Threde and Australian partner Euro Pacific Strategies.

Euro Pacific Strategies chief Tony Sheehan said the Victorian and South Australian governments had expressed interest in the project and South Australia had signed a memorandum of understanding to support it. He said Adelaide had been chosen as the project’s base and said up to 300 jobs would be created.

The information the satellites produce can be beamed directly to mobile phones or PDAs held by firefighters.

Mr Sheehan said the project might allow large landholders to subscribe to text or email alerts when a blaze starts on their property. The images are expected to help insurers calculate payouts and to assist in determining when and where to backburn.

South Australian Infrastructure Minister Patrick Conlon flew to Cologne, Germany, last month to sign the memorandum with the consortium.

“The state of South Australia wishes to support the AUSBIRD consortium’s establishment and operate the AUSBIRD remote sensing system for fire warning, prevention and control as well as for coastal surveillance and natural resource monitoring services,” the memorandum says.

“The state is interested in investing and will consider the use of the AUSBIRD satellite system for diverse public services … and is further willing to enhance the general scientific and technical co-operation between DLR and research establishments in South Australia.”

The satellites would be launched from India or Kazakhstan. The system could be running by 2010.

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