Nation on alert as bushfires spread, Gillard warns NSW residents to be vigilant

Drones could provide superior bushfire predictions in Australia

08 January 2013

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Australia — As bushfires rage in arid and sweltering southern Australia this week, it’s clear new technology to combat the annual threat could not come soon enough. And, according to experts, we may already have the equipment to do it: drones.

Unmanned aerial vehicles typically used in warfare and espionage could finally find an unquestionably morally acceptable use, if regulations allow, says Thomas Duff of the University of Melbourne’s Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, which developed the Phoenix RapidFire bushfire simulator. Duff, who develops bushfire modelling systems using weather, terrain and fuel (vegetation) data for emergency services, believes the vast amount of data gathered by drones could be sent to base via data links and potentially provide far more accurate, real-time predictions of where a fire will spread and when.

“As satellite information and airborne or lidar satellite information becomes better we will have more accurate and precise inputs into the model,” Duff told

Explaining how current simulators work, he said: “You can provide the model with a set of conditions and a location and it actually spreads the fire in virtual time to show where the fire is likely to impact. You can run that model over and over with different conditions to find out where your most sensitive areas are. We’ve been improving the technology, working on the science on what works inside the model to make it more reflective of what happens in reality. Every time we get more information we can tune the model to make it better.”

So far, using the Phoenix RapidFire software, the team can get predictions within four minutes and use this information to suggest where emergency services concentrate their attention. Developed in 2009, following the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, the team have also used it to demonstrate the efficacy of prescribed burning, whereby dry vegetation that acts as fuel is deliberately destroyed to manipulate the path of a potential outbreak.

Today, as temperatures soar to record highs of 45C in rural New South Wales and Tasmania surveys the irreparable damage the blaze caused to 90 homes, a school and a police station within its territory, it’s clear Australia needs solutions far faster. The fire, which has so far not claimed any lives (though 100 people are unaccounted for), could end up being far worse than the 2009 catastrophe which left 173 people dead, say meterologists.

“The current heatwave is unusual due to its extent, with more than 70 percent of the continent currently experiencing heatwave conditions,” said John Nairn, South Australia’s acting regional director for the Bureau of Meteorology.

According to the most recent statistics calculated from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s data, as temperatures continue to increase the likelihood of serious bushfires will increase by up to 25 percent by 2020, and 70 percent by 2050.

Speaking in Hobart this week, to a city hall filled with evacuees, Prime Minister Julia Gillard warned: “[While] you would not put any one event down to climate change… we do know that over time as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events.”

Nasa is already using drones to study hurricane patterns as part of its Global Hawk project, and it would be no great leap to do the same thing in Australia.

“From an aircraft point of view and a sensing point of view the technology is there,” said Duncan Campbell, head of the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation. Campbell is currently working on embedding drones with smart sensors that prevent them from colliding with aircraft. “The big issue is the use of the airspace and that comes down to regulatory issues.” Nevertheless, he predicts we’ll see them in action over Australian skies within two years. However, we won’t be seeing pricey military grade versions:

“What we’re more likely to see in Australia are the smaller machines in the order of a few 100kg, flying a lot lower.”

These would gather infinitely more data than experts have at their disposal right now, with detailed, high resolution surveying of the landscape giving more accurate predictions overall.

With the “loan-a-drone” programme in the US gaining attention, it’s unsurprising Australia wants to tick all the boxes before giving the go ahead to any drones in its domestic skies. It will need to not only ensure the safety of its citizens and its airspace, but guard against misuse by local law enforcement once legislation is in place. However, given the nation reprised plans to spend AU$3 billion (£2 billion) on buying a fleet of seven drones last year, citizens would presumably like the decision-making to gather pace soon. Opting for the pricey Global Hawk models, authorities hope to deploy the fleet purely to watch over its waters, with an eye to using its high resolution cameras and aperture radars to intercept refugees on tiny, inconspicuous boats.

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