Australia — They have been used to lock on to strategic targets in theatres of war, and now military-style drones could find a new role in targeting bushfires in NSW.
The Rural Fire Service is carrying out trials this fire season with “spy in the sky” unmanned aircraft and drones to evaluate their use to monitor fires for extended periods and to provide early data in the first minutes of arriving on the fire ground.
One test is to likely to take placed in the Wollemi National Park near Singleton, should a major fire operation arise. It will use the Scan Eagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which can send back both thermal and visual image data and is capable of staying airborne for some 20 hours.
Insitu Pacific, the Brisbane operator of the Scan Eagle, believes their use will become almost routine within a year,with a trial contract in place with the Queensland fire and emergency services.
The RFS NSW also has a contract to trial the Octocopter with multiple rotors with a view to it being launched by the first crew to arrive at the scene of a fire to provide information on the extent of the fire front to enable senior crew to determine how fire fighting assets are deployed.
Anthony Ferguson, superintendent of aviation co-ordination and planning at RFS NSW, said several projects are looking at their potential usefulness for intelligence gathering around fires.
“In the past you would fly during the day, land the aircraft at last light and the night incident management team would work on the intelligence they had from the last couple of hours to plan for the next day.
“With a UAV you can fly night-time intelligence. You can park it [fly in a square] over the fire ground and the Scan Eagle will give us at least 12 hours’ endurance.”
Mr Ferguson said drones are not the panacea to all problems but “could be another arrow in the quiver”.
One issue to resolve is the speed with which the Civil Aviation Safety Authority will grant permission for UAV operations.
Andrew Duggan, managing director of Insitu Pacific, said the arrangement with the RFS was the first attempt to put a UAV on a “call when needed” contract.
“Every time we do this Civil Aviation Safety Authority gets more aware of the risks involved,” he said.”We work hard on minimising any risk to other aircraft. One of the beautiful things about flying at night-time particularly at low altitude is that there is nothing else out there.
“In the future if we have an inkling that there’s a very high-risk fire day my view is you don’t wait for the fire to start to have the UAV airborne. You stick it up there as a smoke spotter straightaway and have it ready and if you see the smoke you can react really fast providing real-time imagery back to the fire command post.”