How Australia is using AI, sensors, and more to tackle bushfires

The New South Wales and federal governments are both evaluating and helping develop new technologies to better detect, model, and communicate around devastating bushfires.

australia bushfires 2019 rfs
NSW Rural Fire Service

At the end of August 2020, the New South Wales government announced plans to use advanced technologies to accelerate the detection and response to prevent bushfires, following last summer’s fires that resulted in 33 lives lost—26 of those in NSW—the loss of more than 3,000 homes, 17 million hectares burned and the loss of a billion mammals, birds and reptiles across the country.

The NSW government is working with local and international organisations to investigate how it can use data from multiple satellites and local sensor networks to create algorithms that will help detect fires earlier, predict fire behaviour, and help emergency services respond more effectively to protect homes, people and nature.

Currently it counts on Spark, a modeling tool developed by CSIRO’s Data61 unit for simulating fire spread. It also counts on a combination of data from satellite imagery, machine learning through the use of structured data, and predictions, combined with data provided from first responders on the ground—which is still pen- and paper-based in most cases. There are some sensors in use, but there are also people who will climb up towers daily and watch for signs of smoke.

To advance the state of bushfire detection and analysis, the NSW government engaged the Minderoo Foundation as an enabler between the government and organisations such as IT companies and universities.

Minderoo Foundation Fire Fund CEO Adrian Turner said the organisation wants to drive a step change in how Australia deals with fires and floods and “lift Australia to be the global leader in fire and flood resilience by 2025”.

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