La Trobe on the frontline of bushfire detection

La Trobe on the frontline of bushfire detection

Extreme bushfires in Australia are occurring three times more often than they did a century ago, reports ABC’s Radio National.

To help combat the growing severity, we’ve been chosen by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) to be the Australasian downlink for the Firebird satellite program.

The downlink will enable us to provide superior satellite data to emergency services in near real-time, so they can react promptly to bushfire threats to help save lives and reduce bushfire devastation.

Firebird satellites & the DLR partnership

Our Engineering department’s involvement with the Firebird satellite program came about from our long-standing relationship with the DLR, established by La Trobe Electronic Engineering Senior Lecturer Dr Peter Moar over ten years ago.

‘When it comes to preparing, fighting and mitigating against fires, Australia – including La Trobe – has great knowledge of fire landscape management,’ says Dr Moar.

‘But what really attracted them to choosing us, was our expertise in electronics hardware and software design.’

The DLR Firebird satellite program consists of two satellites, the size of a bar fridge, that are significantly more advanced in terms of resolution and sensitivity than what has been available.

Previously, fire detection relied on data from global Earth observation satellites, however, resolution was relatively slow and only detected about 50 per cent of fire events.

Dr Moar says the Firebird satellites ‘have the combination of infrared technology and visible wavelengths on them that are able to map heat anomalies on the earth’s surface’.

The advantage of heat sensors over purely visual systems is that it can map even the smallest bushfires beneath smoke and ash clouds or at night, delivering reliable location and measurement data, the DLR website states.


Image: DLR (CC-BY 3.0).

Real-time data to detect and predict fire threats

In January 2017, Chile experienced its worst bushfire in modern history, which engulfed the town of Santa Olga and took ten lives. The Chilean National Office for Emergency requested these satellites produce up-to date fire maps of the disaster area to assist the Chilean fire fighters, which took only a few hours.

Dr Moar says ‘that’s what we’re aiming to do here in Australia when we have mega-fires’.

Although the satellite imagery has been used in Australia previously, the problem has been that there’s been no downlink. Without a downlink, ‘it can take hours-to-days before the imagery is available for emergency services,’ says Dr Moar. ‘By then, it’s too late.’

The Remote Sensing Research Group downlink is expected to be established at La Trobe in the next three months, which we will have exclusive access to it for almost any research purposes.

Once established, Dr Moar says ‘when the satellite passes overhead we can get the fire map images within no more than five minutes and deliver it to whoever needs it.’

Dr Moar says the near real-time Firebird satellite data could help tremendously in predicting the severity of these types of fires.

For example, in 2003 Canberra suffered a devastating bushfire that destroyed or severely damaged more than 500 homes and killed four people.

‘That fire had been burning for at least a week,’ says Dr Moar. ‘The outcomes of the Royal Commission after was quite clear that they lacked key information in terms of predicting what the fire was going to do when the wind changed.’

Similarly, ‘we had massive fires in the Victorian highlands in that year, and the same thing happened. The fires simmered for 20 to 25 days. All of a sudden the wind changed and it caused a huge amount of destruction.’

Image: Professor Lumley and Dr Moar

The future of bushfire detection

The Firebird satellite program currently consists of two satellites. The long-term aim is to have enough satellites in space that we’ll be able to have regular updates, just like the Bureau of Meteorology rain radar – but for fires.

‘In 5-10 years’ time, the aim is that you’ll be able to get an update say every six-to-ten minutes on bushfire intensity and geo-location straight to your phone via an app, which will be very handy.’

Learn more about our Engineering department, and discover other research we’re doing into bushfire management.

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