Australia Turns to Firefighting Drones to Help Combat Annual Bushfires

A number of recent studies point to a sharp increase in the number of extreme bushfires globally.  These blazes not only destroy property and cause injuries to humans and wildlife, they also exacerbate climate change.  In Australia, carbon dioxide emissions during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020 amounted to nearly 80 percent of that country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions – an unprecedented toll.  Those unprecedented blazes were a startling wake-up call for Australia’s first-responders.  In the four years since. finding new ways of detecting and mitigating brush fires at their inception – before they can rage out of control – has become an urgent national priority.

Drones, it turns out, are an exceptional tool for accomplishing this mission. Equipped to respond to the first signs of alarm, drones can quickly identify an incipient blaze and then signal firefighters to respond, often within minutes.  With their infrared and thermal imaging capabilities, drones can also identify the hot spots within an ongoing blaze that demands priority attention to be extinguished. Drones can even fly into the heart of a blaze – a mission too dangerous for helicopters – and use advanced sensor technology to anticipate its likely trajectory, allowing firefighters to respond proactively.

Drones can also play an important role in fire prevention:  some areas with heavy brush are known to be unusually susceptible to fires, especially during the dry season.  Drones can regularly  patrol these areas and identify risks such as excess vegetation growth near spark-prone electric power grids.  And in some cases, it’s even possible to equip drones with water hoses or chemical pod dispensers that can help douse an active blaze.  The number of supportive firefighting roles for drones is growing rapidly as the scope of the global bushfire threat and its possible consequences has become more widely recognized.

Australia is just now starting to experiment with drone fire-fighting techniques.  Earlier last month, Sydney-based drone developer Ninox Robotics partnered with the Rural Fire Service (RFS) of New South Wales (NSW) in a two-week trial of a long-range multi-rotor drone with an electro-optical and infrared (thermal) gimballed camera that can discern heat signatures vital for identifying fires triggered in this case by lightning strikes.  The custom-built, remotely piloted drone, known as Perimeter 8+, can fly for four hours continuously over a range of up to 50 km, providing responders with the early warning of an incipient blaze, as well as situational intelligence on its scope and direction. allowing for a rapid response and possible mitigation by ground crews.

To support the trial, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) granted Ninox unprecedented approval to conduct the trial at night across an eighth of the state surrounding Cobar and Bourke, which gave the operation a distinct edge over manned aircraft, which are restricted from all night-time surveillance.

RFS officials hailed the results of the two-week trial, saying it was just the first step in the agency’s testing and deployment of fire-fighter drones.  “The RFS recognises the critical importance of innovation in this field, with the aim to make a significant impact on emergency response capabilities,” Deputy RFS Commissioner McKechnie said in a statement last month.. “We look forward to seeing how this technology can be utilized not only to protect communities but also optimize the overall performance of our agency.”

Ninox Founder Marc Ehrlic also hailed the results of the two-week trial.  His company first began collaborating with the RFS on mapping fires back in 2020 but it took four years to begin collaborating in field tests in anticipation of live deployment for the purpose of active fire detection and mitigation.

“This technology can provide fire agencies, like the RFS, with another important tool in the kit they can use. Anything that can support the protection of communities is a good thing and should be explored and utilized,” he said last month.

Firefighting is just the latest commercial niche for Ninox.  The ten-year-old company offers aerial intelligence for infrastructure inspections, defense and perimeter security, precision agriculture and emergency services, including search and rescue, security.  Because of its sterling safety and performance record, Ninox regularly receives waivers to fly at night on a BVLOS basis and above the standard 400-foot recreational ceiling – marking it as a leader in the nation’s drone industry.

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