By KATE BANVILLE
THERE are renewed calls for a national ‘emergency response drone’ program to be fast tracked as authorities face an unrelenting bushfire season for months to come.
Extreme fires are expected to increase globally by up to 14 per cent by 2030 and 50 per cent by 2100, according to the United Nations.
Between 2020 and 2049, bushfires are expected to cost Australia up to $1.2 billion a year in net present value terms, according to researchers at the Australian National University.
Unmanned aircraft systems expert Andrew Crowe said adopting technology in natural disaster environments could also prove lifesaving.
“Drones are all about removing people from dull, dirty or dangerous situations,” Crowe said.
“Why are we putting 6-tonne helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft with two or three crew in the sky, when we can instead fly a 60kg drone that can go for 10 to 12 hours and burn only 10 to 15 kilos of fuel in total?
Crowe’s comments come amid a tragic firefighting aircraft crash on Saturday afternoon near Cloncurry while redeploying from Toowoomba to Mount Isa in support of Queensland’s bushfire response.
Authorities made it to the scene about 5pm near the Eloise Copper Mine, where all three members of the aerial firefighting crew were found dead.
Weeks of unrelenting fire across parts of Queensland has seen hundreds of thousands of hectares burnt. Caravans have been trucked into the Darling Downs community of Tara to house displaced residents after 58 homes were destroyed, exceeding the total number of properties burnt state-wide during Queensland’s last major fire season.
As is done in other countries, Crowe wants to see ’emergency drones’ used to provide near-real-time data to help first responders support public safety, and medical assistance, and detect threats like fires and floods.
“It’s not just fires, drones could be used in floods and cyclones for post-disaster mapping, surveilling areas to locate people where before we would have used crewed aircraft.”
Crowe (pictured), who is responsible for growing Toll Aviation’s uncrewed capabilities, said a lag in legislation and a qualified workforce had largely been responsible for delaying the technology getting off the ground.
“It’s definitely a regulatory issue although CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) has come a long way and I think we’re now probably at a point where it’s the industry’s turn,” he said.
“It should be really a national approach where maybe there’s a national capability that can actually move around the country based on different disasters.
“Every state and territory doesn’t need a huge capability of this stuff but it would take a substantial investment of at least $10 million to achieve these significant outcomes.”
Despite this meteoric rise of technologies, the majority of bushfires nationally are still reported through triple-zero resulting in prolonged response times in rural areas especially.
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Integrating drones equipped with sophisticated technology could also fast track response times and get help to where it’s needed faster, according to Australian National University’s Bushfire Research Centre of Excellence (BRCE).
“In very remote areas there is often no population to report those fires, and normally in areas that are very difficult to get into,” said BRCE director Professor Marta Yebra.
“And so it’s in those situations where fires spread very quickly out of control.”
Yebra (pictured) and her team have been investigating and building technologies to detect fires in the early stages of ignition, as well as providing tools to assist agencies in managing them before becoming catastrophic.
She said a lack of government funding had become a prohibitor to progressing a number of projects needing further research and development.
This is despite evidence given to the 2020 Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements where experts including scientists, app developers and engineers all warned that Australia needed to invest in fire-detecting satellite technology.
“It’s been a bit of a shame that the National Space Mission for Earth Observation was cut by this government,” Yebra said.
“It was a program for developing four earth observation satellites, one of those was going to be for field flammability monitoring but now that the funds have been cut it’s more uncertain how that collaboration with Australian Space Agency is going to be and who is going to provide funds for our research to continue.
“In terms of the ‘internet of things’ and on-the-ground sensors, we have demonstrated some nodes that can detect the smoke and what we are looking at the moment is into satellite communications for those sensors.
“We also want to deploy the sensors in very remote areas so we need to make sure that there is an efficient way for the sensors to communicate using satellite communications.”