All your senses are in play when it comes to finding underground fires, volunteer firefighter Richard Parker says.
“You stand there very quietly; sometimes you can hear it, sometimes you can smell it – you can certainly feel it.”
Parker, a forestry fire researcher, doubles as a firefighter for the Department of Conservation’s high country fire crew.
He was mopping up the remnants of a burn beside the Rakaia River a couple of years ago when a thought struck him.
He knew from his regular job with the Crown-owned Scion that Canterbury University’s (UC) engineering school was doing clever things with remote infra-red sensors. He wondered whether a sensor fixed to a drone could be used to take some of the slog out of firefighting.
The radiant heat in organic soil matter can burn undetected for weeks at hundreds of degrees Celsius, meaning firefighters can’t leave a site nearly as quickly as they would like.
The university’s spatial engineering research centre has created Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones.
Detecting the heat is fairly straightforward – the sensors can register lukewarm water from about 30 metres.
Now the UC engineers are working on ways to transfer the recorded images and data. As it is now, their UAV keeps video and GPS co-ordinates so it can be reviewed later.
Final-year engineering student Ben Litchfield wants the UC drone to take thermal images every second for transmission to Google Earth.
The UAV hasn’t been tested yet in a full range of conditions but flies at about 30 metres high, covering ground that would otherwise have to searched on foot, or by helicopter.
The battery life is 10-15 minutes for a sweep of up to four kilometres at a time. The battery could last longer but then you would have to make the craft bigger, Litchfield said.
The drone research is part of a Rural Fire Research Programme funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The backers are Scion, Forest Owners Association, Local Government New Zealand, the New Zealand Defence Force and Tait Communications.
Litchfield would like to see all rural crew using UAVs as a labour-saver.
It might be too expensive to send a helicopter crew to monitor a few hectares of smouldering land but relatively easy to deploy a drone, he said. They could also be handy in steep or scrubby back-country, swamps and riverbeds.
Drones also had an advantage over helicopters in being able to fly at night, so they could be used to keep watch over active fires.
A UC senior research engineer, Kelvin Barnsdale, said it was hoped the UAV could eventually be simply pulled out a suitcase and set free at the push of a button. It can already take off and land without remote control – and theoretically fly outside radio range. The most time-consuming part of operating one at the moment is pre-mission planning, like creating a flight path.
It also remains to be seen how any civil aviation review of drone rules will limit where they can fly.
As it stands, a drone can operate without regulation provided it is more than 4km from an airfield.
Parker hoped to try out UC’s drone during the recent Flock Hill Station fire near Arthur’s Pass, but some “logistical” problems undid him.
“I didn’t realise we were carrying 110kg of batteries as well – and the wind – it was better not to set it up there.”
It was not yet clear how well a drone would go in a variety of windy conditions, or what could be done to get better battery life out of them. “But if it works the benefits would be enormous,” Parker said.
The UAV had only really been “ready to go” in the past fortnight but Parker had primed regional fire service managers to give him a call so it could be fully tested in the field.
The spatial engineering centre’s drone development started seriously last year, led by another group of final-year students.
It was not clear who would benefit from the drone being commercialised, or who would control the intellectual property. Parker and Barnsdale were comfortable the IP would stay “within industry”.
Barnsdale said public interest in drone technology had grown to a point that UC was quickly becoming a national leader . The university showcased the UAVs as part of a display at Wairarapa’s airshow last month.