Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bush fires: What could we have done to warn people?

In the haze and confusion that has followed the most horrific natural disaster in our history, it's become apparent that the scope of information (or lack thereof) and the speedy dissemination of said information to residents in the firing line was not effective.

The government has authorised a royal commission, but the time that will take and then instituting the findings will take some time.

I'm going to float an idea right now: Unmanned drones. They are an effective and low-risk method of monitoring this sort of natural disaster. They can carry a huge amount of equipment for surveillance and can be part of a technology chain that could be far more effective at sending out information live from the fire to command and then onward to people affected via sirens, the web, radio, SMS and automated land line calls.

The logical choice of drone would be the MQ-9 Predator. Not only has it been a highly successful military aircraft, used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it also has form insofar as monitoring fires.

From Wikipedia:
In November 2006, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center obtained an MQ-9 from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.. The aircraft has been named Ikhana and its main goal is the Suborbital Science Program within the Science Mission Directorate. NASA also acquired a ground control station in a mobile trailer. This aircraft was used extensively to survey the Southern California wildfires in 2007. The data was used to deploy firefighters to areas of the highest need.
And, despite being built ostensibly for global warming research, it worked a treat:

It was surprisingly successful: Ikhana found a hot spot at the bottom of a canyon just east of the town where fire crews hadn't expected any problems. With the data, fire fighters were able to re-deploy to block the hot spot from spreading towards the Sierra town of Paradise. They immediately evacuated 10,000 people and successfully kept the fire from overtaking the town.
Here's why we need this sort of capability:

"Firefighters are blinded by the smoke of a fire, but they need to know where the hottest parts of a fire are burning, and any little hot spots that are out in front," said Vincent Ambrosia, NASA Ames Research Center's principal investigator for the fire mission. "Most temperature sensors are calibrated to sense low-temperature sources; for instance, the military wants to use UAVs to sense a person walking across a field at night. But that kind of sensor doesn't work well for high-temperature sources.

"By calibrating our thermal sensors for high temperatures, we can tell whether a given area is actively flaming or just extremely hot ash—a 'boot melter'—because you don't want to send in firefighters if it's going to melt their boots."

Yes, there are manned aircraft with this sort of sensor equipment available. But a drone is a better choice- for starters, there's the time it can spend "on station".

"The MQ-9 is fitted with six stores pylons. The inner stores pylons can carry a maximum of 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms) each, and are "wet" to allow carriage of external fuel tanks. The midwing stores pylons can carry a maximum of 600 pounds (270 kilograms) each, while the outer stores pylons can carry a maximum of 200 pounds (90 kilograms) each. An MQ-9 with two 1,000 pound (450 kilogram) external fuel tanks and a thousand pounds of munitions has an endurance of 42 hours."
This would mean that a could have gone on station at 9am on Saturday the 8th and stayed until late Sunday night. A refuel at Essendon airport approximately 50 kms from Kinglake by air and it would be back for another 40+ hours. (Also note that if you have purpose built fire "eye in the sky" for non military use, you free up another 450kgs/1000lbs for equipment or even more fuel.)

One of the arguments against drones is safety of existing air traffic. That's only an issue for the MQ-9 when ascending and descending. The rest of the time, it's too high:
From an altitude of 43,000 feet, the wildfire sensor collected and sent 100 images and more than 20 data files containing the location of the fire perimeter over a 16-hour period on Oct. 28 and 29. The data were delivered in real time through a satellite communications link. NASA and Forest Service specialists worked to familiarize the fire management team with accessing capabilities and sensor data format. The data from the NASA system were used by the Esperanza Fire Incident Command Center to map fire behavior and direct resources to critical areas on the fire.
Australian already has these drones in use for illegal fishing detection. So we have trained staff and pilots who can fly and support these aircraft. Further, use by the military of these drones in a domestic crisis is not only great PR, it's ideal for training under real pressure. Illegal fishing might be a worthy reason to have drones, but is it more important than saving lives?

I emailed Wired's "Danger Room" blogger Noah Schachtman to ask his thoughts on drones used in fire fighting. Here's what I sentt:

The number one problem was detection and information flow. In Oz we either leave early or stay to fight. Many early-leavers left too late and were killed in their cars as they did not know the extent of the problem or proximity if the fires.

The government has set up a commission of enquiry. I would like to ask your users what they think- from a tech view- could be used to assist in detection and rapid dissemination of information.

Would unmanned drones built specifically for fire detection be the way forward? On the day in question, we knew we were in for trouble- record drought combined with 120f day and 60mph winds. Could we have launched drones into the danger areas to track fires? (I might add that the most deadly fires were seemingly deliberately lit).

Over to you!
His reply:
I know that NASA has used some drones to fight wildfires. They haven't been more widely-deployed here because of the Federal Aviation Administration's worry about them flying in the same skies as manned planes.

But drones are successfully being used to find everything from smugglers to bomb-planters. Why not fires (or fire-starters) too?
The last point is interesting. If drones can be up in the air scanning for fires, then early detection is possible and even identification and footage of the firebug is possible as well. Not only that but surely there would be a deterrent factor at work as well...?

The costs are a little up in the air as the predator and reaper UAVs are "systems"- typically deployed as 4 aircraft with all relevant support systems. That can get very expensive. But if simply added to our existing UAV program, the costs would be significantly lower.

Technology has a lot to offer in these circumstances and it seems that we are still relying on old systems (like the bush telegraph) when the technology already exists to significantly reduce the risks to people in fire affected areas.

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posted by thr at 10:00 am


Anonymous Modi said...

Considering what the defence budget is like, and that we haven't been attacked on our soil in over 60 years, maybe someone could find the money for such a system. In the off season they could use the planes to scan the northern coastline

2/10/2009 12:48 pm  

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