Dr Marta Yebra is leading a new research project to help detect fires as soon as they ignite. Photo: Jamie Kidston 

Dr Marta Yebra is leading a new research project to help detect fires as soon as they ignite. Photo: Jamie Kidston 

Ignition mission

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

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 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 hi-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.