Lightning storms typically happen at night. Then, in the morning fire service helicopters are sent out to look for bushfires. "We might not know that a fire has started for 12, 14, 18 hours from after the lightning strike," Tridgell said.
Associate Professor Marta Yebra has been working on remote sensing technology to support bushfire management since 2004. In the wake of the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019 and 2020, she joined Dr Roslyn Prinsley, who leads the University’s Strategic Research Initiatives, as well as experts from the Rural Fire Service, Defence, Emergency Services, and across the ANU campus to launch the ANU-Optus Bushfire Research Centre of Excellence.
Yebra said an affiliated project called "Instantaneous Detection of High-Risk-Lightning with Pinpoint Accuracy" will install six novel lighting detectors on towers in the ACT bush, each capable of determining accurately the location of lightning strikes and measuring the amount of energy transferred to the ground.
“Combining these with information with environmental data on weather and fuel attributes coming from high resolution satellite and airborne data, we can pinpoint strikes at greatest risk of causing ignition to immediately task a fire detection technology to confirm ignition and dispatch fire-suppression resources,” Yebra said.
Tridgell said his primary focus is the Scout Drones Project — the development of long-range Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to provide aerial assistance for early detection of wildfires. They are also attempting the much more ambitious task of producing a UAV that can assist in controlling a bushfire.
Funding from Optus made possible the acquisition of the first test aircraft seen in the video above. The lighting detection project was funded by the NSW NSSN with cash contributions form ACT RFS, NSW RFS and ACT PCS.
Early detection key to saving lives, property
After the initial lightning strike, bushfires are just a few square metres in size, often contained to a single tree.
"That’s the point where humans can actually intervene," Tridgell said. "Once the fire is up to tens of thousands of hectares, then really the only thing that's going to put out that fire is the weather. You have to wait for rain."
Tridgell said Australia's firefighters do a fantastic job protecting towns and saving lives, but with new technologies combining UAVs and advanced computing, they will be able to contain fires before they become threats to populated areas.
Yebra and her research team have been modelling and mapping fuel conditions as part of the Australian Flammability Monitoring System and Ozfuel mission. They have also used Lidar data to create virtual maps that can pinpoint individual trees in the forest. And, data about foliage density and moisture allows for the creation of a probabilistic map of the likelihood of an ignition at a particular location. This data is now being combined with the lightning strike information to locate potential bushfires using machine learning algorithms.
That's where the Scout Drones come in.
"Drones can fly under conditions that you wouldn't send a crewed aircraft: at night, in adverse weather," Tridgell said. "And then they can use a thermal camera to confirm whether there is a significant heat source that might be the start of a bushfire."
Next, a Remote Area Firefighting Team (RAFT) will be sent out in helicopters to contain the fire before it becomes a threat.
"Being able to develop a technology that can help to prevent future catastrophe bushfires, this is definitely a motivation," Yebra said.
Drones to supplement choppers, human resources
The Specialist Intelligence Gathering (SIG) helicopters used by the Rural Fire Service operate at a cost of thousands of dollars per hour. They're also very expensive to acquire, Tridgell said.
"It's not just the aircraft, it's also the air crew. The people who fly those aircraft are incredibly talented and very, very well trained. You can't just take any pilot and pop them in skimming the treetops at high velocity in smoke and, you know, raging bushfire. And the air crew need downtime," he said.
With a Scout Drone fleet and remote pilots on the ground, firefighters will be able to discover new fires sooner, without sending human pilots into dangerous flying conditions.
So how soon can we start feeling safer?
"When the climate starts changing back again, I think that's when you really feel safe," Tridgell said. "But that takes a long time, unfortunately. So look, these are the things we're developing to help."
Currently, researchers are running flight tests using a single UAV to demonstrate safety and effectiveness. Airspace regulations will need to evolve before a fleet of drones are cleared to patrol the Australian bush.
"If we tried to approach the Office of Airspace Regulation at the moment and said we want to fly 300 drones over New South Wales, they would say we're insane," Tridgell said. "But those frameworks are getting better all the time. Things are moving quite quickly. So the type of modelling we're working on looks to a future when, yes, you might be able to have a large number of vehicles."