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This university professor is creating a bushfire detection system

He envisages the system will be ready for next year’s bushfire season in Australia.

bushfire detection system
Image: Getty

Professor Joe Dong from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Digital Grid Futures Institute, hopes to take the role of drones a step further by developing a system that vastly decreases damage caused by bushfires in Australia.

He envisions hundreds of drones working together to track environmental data that scientists can then use to predict bushfire outbreaks — not unlike monitoring air pressure, humidity, and wind speed as a way to predict tomorrow’s weather.

An early bushfire detection system

Professor Joe Dong believes that “ground resolution and level of details captured by drone would be much better than satellite.” Professor Dong is currently raising funding to build a system similar to the Autel Evo 2 that captures true HD footage on cameras.

He envisages the system will be ready for next year’s bushfire season in Australia. If it tests well, similar systems are likely to be adopted in other wildfire-prone countries. However, Professor Dong notes that” Saving lives will depend on uptake and response by government or other authorities who are at risk and can use this as a proactive option in their overall suite of preventative measures.”

Bushfires ravaging Australia

The ongoing bushfires in Australia have killed at least 34 people and have been responsible for emitting 306 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. The economic cost of these fires is expected to exceed $4.4 billion as it has damaged homes, infrastructure, and animal habitats.

These fires put intense political pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison who was during the crisis, vacationing in Hawaii, which The Guardian slammed him by saying, “Where the bloody hell was he?” As a result, protestors camped outside of his place waiting for him to return from his holiday.

prime minister scott morrison
Image: The Telegraph

Around the world

Climate change has been largely accepted as the cause of the increased number of wildfires around the world. It’s not just Australia experiencing unprecedented wildfires.

Europe saw a record number of fires in 2019, including Spain’s biggest wildfires in twenty years, whilst 2018 saw one of the most destructive wildfire seasons ever recorded in California’s history, which saw 14,000 firefighters deployed to help take control of the blaze.

Search and rescue

With climate change-related disasters anticipated to increase year-on-year, drones have proven to be playing a key role in search and rescue efforts. So far, there have been 279 lives saved through drones.

Weather prediction plays a large role in the prediction and tracking of fires. For example, prolonged heat and humidity can contribute to wildfires combusting — while wind speed and direction, along with satellite imagery, can tell scientists the likely direction the fires will spread.

Problems with satellite imagery

Satellite images provide scientists with topographic maps and show the potential fuel sources for fires. Often these will be things like bushes, trees, and shrubs. With that being said, there are some problems with using satellite imagery for prediction, such as:

  • Cost: The cost to acquire the rights from the satellite imagery is expensive.
  • Satellite ownership: If a foreign government owns a satellite, then this can limit the ability for scientists to do their job. 
  • Unreliable imagery: Satellites are prone to smoke and clouds, meaning that often the images can be low-detailed and unclear.

Other developments in the drone space

Nokia is currently testing a similar drone disaster detection system in Sendai City, Japan — the coastal area that was devastated by a tsunami in 2011. Nokia’s system relies on using sensors to detect high-risk events.

Nokia automatically sends outs a series of broadcast messages when a potential upcoming disaster is detected:

  • Cellphones: People receive a broadcast alert message to their cellphones. 
  • Flying drones: In public areas, drones fly over and announce the warning via speakers.

Drones promise a future where technology and innovation can work together to overcome issues that would have devastated us in the past. Drone technology may be relatively young and it is rapidly outpacing the old ways of doing things. By paying attention to the promise of progress, scientists are now able to equip firefighters and other crisis response teams to not only prepare for the worst — but to defeat it.

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