Heat seeking drone to fight rural fires
Engineering student Ben Litchfield holds a UAV (also shown in flight, below) designed to help rural firefighters find hot spots in areas difficult to access on foot.
With the hot dry weather and fire bans in many parts of the country, the development of a new high-tech tool is being welcomed by rural firefighters.
The Crown Research Institute Scion, Tait Communications and the Engineering School at Canterbury University are collaborating on a project to quickly and cost-effectively identify the underground hot spots that often remain long after a fire seems to be out. Detecting hot spots is presently labour intensive, expensive and dangerous.
Researchers have turned to drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to see what possibilities they offer for detecting hotspots. Final year students at the University of Canterbury have been working on the project for the past two years and the results of their efforts were on display at the recent Wings Over Wairarapa airshow as part of a feature on the use of drones.
Ben Litchfield, a final year engineering student who has been working on the project, says the objective is to produce a UAV with a payload that can geolocate any hot spots, capture their GPS co-ordinates and make it easier for rural firefighters to put them out.
“Fire-fighters have to walk around a fire that looks to be out and physically touch the ground with the backs of their hands to detect underground hot spots,” says Ben.
“The alternative is a helicopter with special equipment that can cost thousands of dollars.
“The UAV should be able to fly at a relatively low height—about 30m—and cover large strips of ground. We hope that the drone, with its camera and other equipment, will be able to quickly and safely mark these underground hot spot areas and produce a map of an area for the firefighters.
“The technology is still not proven, but if it’s successful it will save hours of hard work by rural firefighters.”
The project was started last year by another group of students working on the project for Scion and Tait Communications. Ben says he is just carrying on from where they left off and fine tuning their work.
“I’d like to see all rural fire people have access to one of these because I think it will save them an enormous amount of time,” says Ben.
Scion fire research scientist Richard Parker says, “Scion has always been involved in fire research as part of its overall mandate to research forestry protection and opportunities. Part of Scion’s role is to develop software and tools that help fire managers put out fires.
“Dealing with hot spots has always been a challenge. Drones could be a unique solution. There is no other technology of this nature available anywhere in the world as far as we know,” he says.
“As well as being used in grass and tussock country, UAVs would have real advantages in steep and scrubby terrain, swamps and riverbeds—anywhere access for firefighters is difficult. Drones could also monitor fire perimeters, which are critical areas where there is unburnt material and a risk of flare-ups that could get the blaze going again.
“The UAV project has a way to go yet,” says Richard.
“Some of the issues that have to be addressed include the drone performance in windy conditions, the overall stability of the platform and battery life. But if it works, the benefits would be enormous.”
In the meantime, Ben Litchfield and his colleagues are working hard and fine tuning the UAV in anticipation of a rigorous and successful testing programme.
- Report and photographs by Peter Burke.
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