UAV firefighting technology in the sky

THE future is here when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.

Firefighters meanwhile are always looking toward the latest technology with the Hot Fire Training Facility at Mogo an example of how local Rural Fire Service brigades are on the cutting edge.

Now Cobargo resident and UAV enthusiast Warren Purnell is convinced the remotely operated flying machines are a perfect platform to assist firefighters in their bushfire duties.

He has set up Project Vulcan Unmanned Aerial Systems is working with the local RFS command to demonstrate the abilities of his own UAV, including flying it over several hazard reduction burns.

Then last month, with RFS cooperation he flew over a small bushfire at Yowrie near Cobargo after it had been extinguished by the Cobargo RFS brigade, with the assistance of a helicopter and bulldozer.

His footage relayed to the ground allowed firefighters to see in real time where the fire had spread and revealed hidden structures and water sources in the thick bush.

“It could be a local aerial asset providing situational awareness for commanders and hopefully improve the safety of volunteers,” Purnell said.

“It is hoped eventually this technology will free up the full-size aerial assets to focus on important duties such as water bombing and fire team insertion/extraction.

“We are through the proof of concept stage and are now tailor-making the system to allow it to conduct specific tasks and optimising its functions for the RFS.”

Community safety officer for RFS Far South Coast Team Marty Webster said operations personnel had been liaising with Purnell and could all see the potential, but were aware of the challenges and possible policy issues.

"We can see the potential in this technology and are investigating the most appropriate ways to utilise it,” Webster said.

NSW RFS aviation coordinator Superintendent Anthony Ferguson confirmed the RFS aviation section had been doing its own testing with a UAV contractor, including up at Singleton last week where UAV was flown over a fire at night carrying thermal cameras.

This mission was actually done in cooperation with documentary being filmed for the BBC and SBS, demonstrating the growing worldwide interest and use of this remotely-flown aerial technology.

But there had also been several near misses involving unauthorised craft in recent months

One incident at Guyra, NSW involved a fixed-wing UAV “buzzing” a full-size fixed wing aircraft eventually forcing it off the fireground, Ferguson said.

“They’ve got great potential but on the other side they can be very dangerous and unlicensed or even licensed operators flying around a fire without our authorisation is extremely dangerous – when some of these machines measure 1m by 1m it would be like a massive bird strike.”

While the RFS definitely saw the benefits, it was proceeding with caution.

“We’re looking at it from a safety perspective and also in a practical sense doing cost benefit analysis looking at what sensors they can carry and if they can save money,” he said.

One challenge to work out was exactly what equipment UAVs could carry, such as thermal imaging cameras that were now so good on larger aircraft that firefighters could see hotspots from 250km away.

Ferguson said he could envision some of the smaller, cheaper UAVs operating as first responders identifying the extent of a fire before the larger aerial assets arrived and could almost be seen as expendable if needed.

The other practical uses were post-fire analysis and also intelligence gathering, he said.

Purnell is adamant that UAVs are not a replacement for full-size helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft and their water dropping abilities.

Rather his small, relatively cheap flying machines are an affordable option for local commands that can be used in all kinds of firefighting duties from fire and smoke spotting after lightning storms to assiting with and reviewing hazard reduction burns.

His current test bed can carry a payload of up to 500 grams, flying for 10 to 15 minutes depending on conditions with fully autonomous capabilities.

“It is basically a portable fire tower and then after a fire it can also be used for mop-up operations,” Purnell said.

“The cost of operating a helicopter for a day is more than the total cost of one of these machines and helicopters are not always available.”

In an active bushfire scenario, it too could be used but would be called off when larger aircraft arrived and closed airspace was declared, he said.

Protocols and procedures are vital when different kinds of aircraft operate in the same airspace over a fire.

“RFS commanders have to be aware of what is happening in their airspace,” he said.

The issues came to light only recently when footage from an unauthorised UAV flight over Sydney area bushfires made it online and onto the news.

Purnell and other UAV enthusiasts hate the term “drone” that they say refer to a military target, not the sophisticated remotely operated aircraft that are now flown by everyone from various militaries to aircraft hobbyists.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority in Australia regulates the devices and licenses commercial operators. New legislation to govern where, how and when the devices can be used is also being developed, Purnell said.

He recently attended the AGM of the Australian Association of Unmanned Systems (AAUS) that has been set up to lobby for and encourage the use of the technology.

The small aircraft are already being used in kinds of commercial applications across Australia from agricultural functions monitoring crops and orchards to power line surveys to aerial photography.

The opening scene flying over paddocks in the television show River Cottage Australia currently being filmed at Central Tilba for The LifeStyle Channel was shot with highly sophisticated UAV set up to provide glider smooth and stunning high definition footage.

Purnell himself is a professional photographer and through his business Over U Photography he has been dabbling with remote and aerial photography for the past six years.

He can mount a camera on top of a very tall pole and a couple of years ago purchased his custom-built flying machine from a UAV builder in Victoria.

On Friday he flew his UAV at the Tilba Tilba sportsground for the benefit of the Narooma News and this article.

From his remote cockpit in the back of his Landcruiser, he programmed a set course for the UAV into his laptop setting out four points at the corners of the sportsground for the aircraft craft to fly to.

For safety he was able to set perimeters or an aerial fence that would shut it down if exceeded, and with the push of a few buttons on his remote controller, the Vulcan UAV took and flew the course in complete autonomous mode.

This could assist firefighters by flying a grid pattern over a fire ground with the pilot having the option of taking over at any time to check out any points of interest more closely.

The UAV can carry both still and video cameras that feed footage back via wireless feed to his laptop or a pair of special goggles with little monitors in the eyepieces that firefighters could wear on the ground.

Purnell then demonstrated some free flying, pointing out that even now there were restrictions on where remotely operated aircraft could fly, having to be clear of people and structures.

Unlike the military systems that can be flown from somewhere on the other side of the world, current regulations in Australia demand aircraft be flown while in the line of sight of the operator.

“I don’t think we will see UAVs delivering pizzas anytime soon but unmanned systems are becoming increasingly common with all kinds of jobs for them to do,” he said.

The Eurobodalla Model Aero Club also used the Tilba Tilba sportsground for its more conventional aeroplanes, and like any remote bushfire location was perfect for flying and showing off the UAV abilities.

Footage over Tilba Tilba and its rolling hills shot on editor Stan Gorton’s GoPro camera, although not as smooth or stunning as on television, can be viewed above and on YouTube.

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