By Stan Gorton
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.