A new research partnership will help build a national defence system against catastrophic bushfires and stop them in their tracks before they become deadly.

The ‘black summer’ bushfires of 2019-20 wreaked havoc across Australia. The fires directly killed 33 people, burnt 17 million hectares, destroyed more than 3,000 houses, and killed or displaced three billion animals. And according to the Bushfires Royal Commission, smoke from the fires led to the death of 450 people and affected 80 per cent of the population.

Bushfires are expected to cost the nation at least $30 billion over the next three decades. Modelling from The Australian National University (ANU) shows investment in early bushfire detection could save Australia $8.2 billion over the next 30 years.

The devastation of the black summer has left us with an urgent question: how can we stop this from happening again? A new research partnership seeks to answer this deadly riddle. ANU and Optus have joined forces to develop a revolutionary national system that aims to detect bushfires within 60 seconds of ignition and put them out within minutes.

The $6 million ANU-Optus Bushfire Research Centre of Excellence will undertake advanced research and develop high-tech solutions to predict, identify and extinguish potentially deadly blazes. The ambitious program will run until 2024.

In the short term, experts from Optus and ANU will work together to develop an autonomous ground-based and aerial fire detection system, based on new technologies and strategies, including the use of infrared cameras, AI, sensors and drones.

The Centre of Excellence will design a sensor to be mounted on a geostationary satellite to spot and track fires. ANU is also developing novel extinguishing technologies which will rapidly suppress small fires after they start.

The research program is led by Dr Marta Yebra from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society and the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, and Professor Rob Mahony, also from the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Moreton National Park in New South Wales after the Currowan bushfire in January 2020. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

By 2022, the centre proposes to launch a constellation of satellites, managed by ANU, to complement the fire-detection system. Dr Yebra says we have a much higher chance of detecting an ignition if we can work out where to look. Her research on remote sensing will seek out dry fuel loads to provide us with the information that we need.

“To make sure that we do not miss any new  ignitions, we must provide a layered ‘wedding cake’ of technologies in detectors on satellites, balloons, drones, towers and the ground. We are working on all of these opportunities and also on ways to quickly integrate the data from these,” Dr Yebra says.

The other side of this coin is putting out the fires once they have been detected. Professor Rob Mahony says drones have a growing role to play in detection and extinguishing newly ignited bushfires. He and his team are designing and building water gliders to suppress and extinguish fires, and fleets of drones which will detect fires when they have only just ignited.

“Our world-class expertise in robotic vision may one day see robotic ground crews which can extinguish  fires in remote areas which are not easy to put out from the air,” Professor Mahony says.

A particularly innovative breakthrough was conceived by alumnus and honorary ANU fellow Dr Andrew Tridgell OAM, who has designed novel auto-piloted water gliders that will extinguish fires within minutes of them igniting. He is supervising honours students who are building and testing prototypes.

Speaking at the launch of the new partnership, ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said when it came to stopping bushfires, “every second counts”.

“There is no point detecting fires quickly if they cannot be extinguished quickly.

“As we saw this season, these fires can cause massive destruction to our environment, homes and infrastructure – and they cost lives.”

Professor Rob Mahony with water glider. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Dr Roslyn Prinsley, who leads the University’s Strategic Research Initiatives, has brought together people from across campus – physics, engineering, bushfire research and management, astronomy, environment, law and economics – to deliver the program in partnership with Optus.

“After the fires, I had this burning question: what if we could find a way to track fires soon after they have ignited and put them out when they are so small that we can still suppress them?” she says.

“We are harnessing expertise and research in space, communications, computer vision, sensing systems, defence, data analytics and bushfire science, to throw everything we have at bushfires. Our innovative science and technology, together with our understanding of fire and the natural environment, helps us to make sure that when it comes to defending ourselves from bushfires that we do not leave anything to chance.”

The research program won’t just save lives, homes, wildlife and our landscapes – a successful system could save the nation billions of dollars.

Professor Matthew Gray, who co-led the ANU modelling on the cost of bushfires, says between now and 2049 fires were likely to cost the Australian economy up to $1.1 billion per year.

“That’s if we don’t factor in a potential increase in fires due to climate change,” he says.

“But our modelling shows that if we invest in the ability to detect large fires earlier, there  are  significant economic savings. For example, the cost of bushfires under a high climate change scenario and no change in fire detection times could rise as high as $2.4 billion per year by 2049.

“Bushfires don’t just have a terrible economic cost – they destroy habitats and homes, kill wildlife and people, and leave our landscape struggling to recover for years  to come.”

Top image: Dr Marta Yebra. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

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