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The Age: Drones to give firefighters and emergency workers an eye in the sky

Drones to give firefighters and emergency workers an eye in the sky

Firefighting authorities have a new tool in their arsenal this summer – but it won’t carry a fire hose, firefighter or water to dump on the flames.

Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) is trialling drones to assess damage caused by bushfires and other emergencies such as floods and storms.

They can also take infra-red footage to help firefighters determine whether buildings or trees still contain heat and remain a fire threat, or whether flood levees have potential to be breached. A 3D camera can be used to produce modelling of damaged structures for impact assessment.

Des Bahr, chairman of the National Safety Agency, said drones could make assessmentsfrom just a few feet above ground to as high as 6000 feet.

The drones would deliver high definition footage that could be broadcast immediately to laptops, mobile phones and control centres around the state.

“We didn’t want to limit where you may have to be to receive that information,” Mr Bahr said.

Drones were a cost-effective and efficient tool, he said. “Today firefighting aircraft are only used during daylight hours, we’re obviously able to fly 24 hours a day.”

The drones are worth between $50,000 (including batteries) and $350,000.

Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the trial was about information integration.

“What we are out to do is to get airborne intelligence off the drones,” he said.

Drones would be deployed in the aftermath of a fire to provide information about a fire’s impact, including whether structures remained at risk of burning, hazardous trees, and whether agricultural assets left unscathed needed protection.

Mr Lapsley said drones would allow assessments of places people could not get to, and possibly quicker decisions on whether landowners could returnto their properties.

EMV’s Cain Trist said the drones were part of a trial using different cameras and sensors that could also be used in aircraft and vehicles, as well as hand-held devices.

“What we’re trying to do first of all is look at how we get the information out of those cameras and sensors to people … onto their desktops so that they can make good decisions,” he said.

Forest Fire Management Victoria is also trialling drones and recently flew one over a fuel reduction burn in the Otways.

Senior forest fire management officer Bodin Campbell said it performed well.

“It gives us that eye in the sky when we’re igniting the burn, which gives us better awareness of how the smoke column is developing. And that’s really important and informs what your fire behaviour is going to be like,” he said.

“Once the burn is complete, you then have the option of running a thermal imagery camera over the burn, and what that does is identify the hotspots that are still left … which could cause problems if the weather forecast drastically changed.”

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