A centre of excellence will be established at the ANU in Canberra which will roll out a network of infra-red heat-sensing cameras, autonomous water-carrying gliders and, within a few years, satellite systems to provide an early bushfire detection and suppression system.
The $6 million dollar partnership between the ANU and telecommunications company Optus had its gestation in November last year and over the next four years will develop into a networked system which, at its fruition, will have a dedicated geostationary satellite "watching over" the continent for bushfire outbreaks.
The head of the project, Dr Marta Yebra, said this technology-based solution would use multiple platforms to tackle the bushfire detection issue, starting by working with the Rural Fire Service to mount long-range, heat-sensing cameras across the ACT's four established fire towers in readiness for the coming season.
"In optimal conditions, the cameras can detect up to 10 kilometres so they will be a very useful addition in the short term," she said.
"Later we can look to expanding the network to 10 cameras so we can cover much larger areas of the ACT and even beyond."
The next element to the program coming in 2022 is so-called "cube sats", tiny satellites which would loop in polar orbits over areas of south-eastern Australia and take a couple of high-resolution images on each pass, providing regular aerial views of any bushfire outbreaks which need targeting and suppressing before they grow larger.
"We still have to design and build these small satellites, but this technology is already common and now, having a technical partnership with Optus, this is a very reachable goal," Dr Yebra said.
The final and most effective tool in the detection network is a planned geostationary satellite which would sit over the continent and watch for outbreaks, using image resolution down to 100 metres.
The Optus-ANU collaboration is the starting point for a major national network of partners. The network will include the ACT RFS, billionaire Twiggy Forrest's Minderoo Foundation and the ACT Parks and Conservation Service, with other organisations able to join.
The program will bring the appointment of a joint chair for Bushfire Research and Innovation, and the establishment of a research and innovation fund.
The ANU researchers will also tackle early bushfire suppression issue in a non-traditional way, characterised by Professor Rob Mahony's low-cost, GPS-targeted gliders which, built at full scale, could each carry 500 litres of water and saturate specific targets, such as a tree ignited by a dry lightning strike.
"What we know is that many large bushfires start small and are triggered by dry lightning strikes in remote bushland, which is vary hard for fire crews to get into," Dr Mahoney said.
An engineer who specialises in aerial robotics, Prof Mahoney said the gliders could be built using dense cardboard and off-the-shelf avionic components at low cost - around $500 each - and launched from a high-flying cargo aircraft, decelerated and split open by a parachute to disperse and mist the water right over the burning target.
"We are aiming for a smart, low-cost solution which can be launched in difficult flying conditions, is GPS-targeted and has between a 45- to 60-second drop time before the parachute in the tail deploys," he said.
"The deceleration from the chute then breaks open the nose cone carrying the water; we believe we could effectively target a six- to eight-square-metre radius around a single burning tree."