Pyromaniac UAV? Australia tests backfire-lighting drones to battle wildfires

drones wildfires firefighter

Against the growing number and increased destruction of wildfires across the planet over the last several years, it’s become more frequent to hear reports of UAV assisting firefighters in the battle to put them out. Now the Australian state of Victoria is using drones to light fires as well.

This week Victoria officials revealed tests had been carried out using drones to light controlled fires in the inland Wimmera region, which features flat drylands and large agricultural spreads. The trials flew UAV equipped with incendiary devices to ignite blazes in designated places across a 7,413-acre zone. Those were allowed to burn as simulated backfires ­– relatively small fires often lit in front of advancing infernos to deprive them of fuel once they arrive.

Officials said the technique of using drones to light smaller fires as a means of battling far bigger ones provided increased accuracy and safety compared to manual methods.

Forest Fire Management Victoria, which oversaw the tests, said UAVs were able to fly above often difficult or inhospitable terrain to remote spots where counter-blazes were lit faster than humans could. That aerial approach in live situations would also save people the hard haul out, as well as what can be a dangerous race to do their work and get back before raging wildfires get too close. Meantime, drones proved very effective setting backfires in precisely designated places.

Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Lily D’Ambrosio, said the successful UAV experiments were one way Australian authorities plan to put new tech to work against the escalating risk of catastrophic wildfires amid continued global warming.

“By continuing to improve our practices and trial new technology, we are able to deliver a more effective planned burning program to protect communities and the environment from bushfires,” she said in a report by ZDNet. “Climate change and more extreme weather events are changing the nature of bushfires, so it’s important we take action now to minimize risk to human life and our native wildlife.” 

Earlier this week, the state of New South Wales said it would be outfitting its firefighters with $42.5 million worth of tech equipment to fight wildfires, including fleets of drones, so-called COW UAVs, and other vehicles providing mobile WiFi.

On Wednesday, the Minderoo Foundation – an Australian philanthropy with $1.75 billion in funds it provides to a variety of causes ­– said it would begin using satellites and predicative analytics tech to build a new anti-wildfire monitoring system. The foundation says it hopes to develop that platform by 2025 to be able to automatically spot blazes from above as soon as they begin, and deploy firefights to the most effective places to extinguish them within their first hour of burning.

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