Satellites and AI to help fight bushfires

July 21, 2020

Launched in September 2019, the SmartSat CRC is working towards the capability of tracking fire fronts in real time.

The SmartSat CRC is already proving its worth.

Australia’s $245 million SmartSat CRC was launched in September 2019 and immediately kickstarted a practical test of its potential contribution to communities. Australia’s devastating 2019-2020 bushfires focused attention on every aspect of bushfire management: prediction, warning, response and recovery. The SmartSat CRC is concentrating on one particular problem area.

A persistent challenge for firefighters is tracking a fire front in real time, says University of Queensland researcher, Professor Stuart Phinn, one of SmartSat CRC’s program leaders. 

To direct firefighting resources, emergency managers need high spatial resolution images that can be updated “every couple of minutes”, says Phinn, who is program director for the SmartSat CRC’s Next Generation Earth Observation Data Services program. “You can do that from drones, but you can’t fly drones or aircraft through smoke and cloud all of the time.”

The answer may lie in space-based sensors. The SmartSat CRC could integrate new modes and AI-enhanced algorithms on existing and future Earth observation satellites to provide an increasingly accurate, real-time picture of a bushfire.

Seeing through smoke 

This is a tough ask; visual sensors or thermal imagers operating at the wavelengths used specifically to look for fires are attenuated slightly by smoke and heavily by cloud. Synthetic Aperture Radar is an advanced technology that captures images at 500 times the resolution of everyday radar. It sees through cloud but isn’t sensitive to temperature, although it might detect differences between burnt and unburnt trees to help map burning areas.

AI-enabled fusion of the two types of sensor data could deliver a coherent picture if the right algorithms and operating system are in place aboard a satellite.

One of the SmartSat CRC’s primary focus areas is to map bushfires and other natural disasters. Phinn’s research integrates the CRC’s three main programs — Communications, Intelligent Platforms and Earth Observation.

“In some cases, we need to upload information from the ground to augment or update the models and algorithms in the satellite. That’s Program 1,” he says.

“Essentially, you’d have a capable storage and processing facility aboard the platform itself: that’s Program 2. And then Program 3 is using the right data and the right processing approach, which is the Earth observation and data analytics side of it, combined with intelligent platforms and algorithms to give us intelligent products and services,” he says. 

Funding the dream

These are early days for the CRC and a number of projects and proposals along these lines will emerge as the university and industry partners, including Nova Systems, BAE Systems and Airbus, kick off their research. And a link is also developing with the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC with project leader Dr Marta Yebra, who is working at the Australian National University on remote sensing of bushfire fuel conditions.

Mapping fire fronts from space in real-time is achievable, says Phinn.

“We know which algorithms we’d put on these platforms and how to refine them. As the algorithms get better, we’re gradually improving the mapping and monitoring we do. There’s no way we’d have had funding to do that before this CRC.” — Gregor Ferguson

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