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Drone swarms could be key to fighting future bushfires

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Ten years from now swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) supported by ground-based drones could be used to suppress bushfires and limit their spread, new research from Risk Frontiers says.

Technology available now such as autonomous trucks and robotics used in the mining sector could be adapted for use in firefighting, along with agricultural monitoring technologies and balloons equipped with radio communications.

“We need to be bold in our thinking,” the Sydney-based risk modeller’s latest newsletter says. “Innovation to discover the next generation of firefighting capability should be a priority in any government response to the black summer bushfires. Our institutions must think big.”

Current bushfire risk management relies on long-standing resource-intensive approaches which struggle to control fires when conditions are catastrophic, Risk Frontiers says.

Bushfire detection is complex and in the time it takes for resources to be tasked and targeted bushfires can spread to the point where suppression is difficult – particularly when ignition occurs in remote areas far from emergency resources.

That’s compounded by a warming climate with fire seasons becoming longer, and days of significant fire danger more frequent.

Risk Frontiers says making the problem worse still is a “growing bushland-urban interface where buildings and community infrastructure are highly vulnerable and exposure is growing”.

By 2030, resources will be rapidly dispatched and co-ordinated autonomously once a bushfire is detected.

Pre-staging of resources will be based on advanced predictive analytics and enabled by unmanned traffic management systems. Drones and other UAVs will contribute to rapid impact assessment, search and rescue, logistics and clearance of supply routes.

“The widespread adoption of artificial intelligence and greater digital connectedness across the economy and emergency management sector will find new ways to make sense of data and improve decisions,” the newsletter says.

Even in the short term there are many technologies and systems already existing that could enhance firefighting and disaster management.

Satellites should be evaluated for their ability to improve fire detection, Risk Frontiers says, and small UAVs could create a “mesh network” to provide wireless communications or serve equipment fitted to aircraft.

In the US, UAVs have already provided enhanced imagery over firegrounds and, using infrared sensors, have supported monitoring of fire conditions at night.

Risk Frontiers wants government, research and industry stakeholders to collaborate in a “research and innovation blueprint” outlining how technologies will enhance firefighting in both the near term and for “the next generation of capability”.

“This blueprint should be focused on a vision whereby bushfires can be rapidly managed and controlled in a co-ordinated manner informed by advanced predictive intelligence.”

The newsletter also says governments should consider land swaps and buy-outs to reduce exposure in high risk areas after bushfires, and plan communities in a way that ensures infrastructure is more resistant to failure in emergencies.

The material used in the Risk Frontiers newsletter was based on a forum featuring experts in insurance, construction, technology, aviation, risk management, firefighting and information technology.