Spotting bushfires from space

Storm-chasing drones, smart water bombers, and a constellation of bushfire-spotting satellites could be the key to reducing Australia’s devastating bushfire toll.

Imagine lightning strikes a tree in a deep, dry valley. A satellite equipped with infrared sensors detects it within minutes and notifies a drone. The camera-equipped drone zips to the site, and the blaze is confirmed (since satellites can have high rates of false alarms).

Then a C-130 plane, flying high and safe overhead, drops a water-carrying glider with an automated guidance system over the fire, putting it out before it can become a devastating bushfire.

That’s just part of the ambitious fire-fighting plan being developed by the Australian National University (ANU) National Bushfire Initiative. Initiative director, Professor Marta Yebra, says they’re working on a range of technologies that will also monitor fuel loads, moisture levels, and weather.

But there’s more.

“We are pushing for a multi-layered approach,” Yebra says, explaining that different sensors will be mounted in different platforms to spot fires in a range of environments.

“For example, on-ground sensors for early fire detection – but they have very limited range in terms of the areas…so they can only be mounted in specific places, like places at high risk, or on highways, or places of high ecological value that you want to protect,” she says.

“Then you have another layer that would be cameras mounted in towers that have a bigger range of view, and then we have drones – as we go up we have a larger landscape overview, and then ultimately Low Earth Orbit and geostationary satellites.”

On high-risk days, drones could be sent to keep an eye on assets like NSW’s Wollemi Pines. They can be equipped with technology that will identify the driest areas, as well as areas with the biggest fuel loads.  

“If you combine that with the prediction of lightning, for example, the drones can chase the lightning storms,” Yebra says. “That’s how you optimise the drones. So you deploy them based on fire risk.”

The gliders can be accurately deployed and their water storage bursts before they hit the ground, which helps disperse the water more effectively.

ANU, working with Optus, hopes to launch the satellites next year.

In the wake of Australia’s catastrophic 2019–20 bushfire season, The Australian Space Agency set up a taskforce to look at how space-based Earth observations could help tackle future fires. The Agency has committed to working with overseas partners and industry to develop its fire-spotting capabilities.

Queensland start-up Fireball.International is using similar technology in California, and has started testing it in Australia. Two weeks ago, it signed a deal with Space Machines Company (the Australian “space taxi”) to put its Optimus-1 satellite into orbit in 2022 using a Gilmour Space Technologies rocket. Fireball.International says its system will be able to detect bushfires within one minute.

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