An Australian trial of a bushfire detection system based on long-range cameras will only address part of the problem, according to the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).
The Bushfire CRC is a federally-funded research group designed to foster stronger links between researchers, private enterprise and public agencies.
Federal Liberal MP, Fran Bailey, is pushing for an Australian trial of a long-range camera system, based on technology developed for the Mars mission ‘Pathfinder’ by the German Aerospace Centre. The system is a network of highly sensitive greyscale cameras powered by hydrogen fuel cells, designed to detect smoke at extreme distances.
But the camera-based system is just one consideration in a range of complex issues, according to CRC representatives.
"It's a matter of a combination of systems, not just one," said Bushfire CRC spokesman, David Bruce.
Digital bushfire detection and warning systems are a major area of research following the damning Royal Commission into Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires, which revealed that many residents of towns destroyed in the blazes received no warning of the impending danger.
The commission also heard that the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Sustainability and Environment websites were at times inaccessible and displayed conflicting information throughout the crisis.
Australia’s existing bushfire detection system is the satellite-relayed Sentinel, which provides a national map of bushfire activity over a 24-hour window. This system is publicly accessible but monitored by regional fire authorities, who are responsible for warnings to their local areas.
Bruce says Sentinel is useful for monitoring the general location of fire fronts but is not an effective warning tool.
“Under normal circumstances [Sentinel] is not bad, but in terms of warning people to get out of houses, it’s a little bit different. When we’re talking about warnings of a fire suddenly taking a left-hand turn and running, it has its limitations – it needs to be covered with other sorts of detection systems, much more localised ones,” says Bruce.
A range of other technologies are available for early detection, including land based infra red and camera-based systems, aerial surveillance with conventional aircraft or unmanned drones.
Dr Chris Scott, safety and security general manager at National Information and Communication Technology Australia (NICTA), is currently heading research to integrate visible and long-spectrum infrared (IR) technologies. The research is aimed at specialist security applications, such as face recognition and sensors that can determine abnormal behaviour in individuals in a crowd, but Scott says this hybrid technology could be implemented in an Australian bushfire detection strategy. Infrared technology is able to penetrate smoke and vegetation, a limitation of visible-spectrum cameras.
“What we’re doing is integrating the IR with the visible, so you’re able to understand the nature of that threat more accurately and, as an alarm, more reliably and at an earlier stage. What we’re trying to do is build these algorithms that detect unusual threats or risk situations to give an early indications before it develops into a full scale emergency,’ Scott said.
Bruce says that trialling new technology is important but a strategy for comprehensive, scalable implementation is necessary for any combination of systems to succeed.
“The whole idea of how people listen to and act on warnings is an extraordinarily complex field, as we’ve learnt over recent months,” he said.
“Even if you look at the tsunami warning off the east coast of Australia recently – the warnings by technology were quite explicit, but how people reacted to that was quite varied. Technology is only a part of the solution to these things.”
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