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How Drones Can Help Restore Australia’s Infrastructure and Wildlife Habitats Burned in the Bushfires

BY Isabella Lee
7 January 2020

On Thursday, January 2nd, New South Wales declared a seven-day state of emergency as Australia’s deadly bushfires continued to rage. This is the third time in three months that Australia has declared a state of emergency.

Water bombing aircraft are playing a significant role in the control and suppression of the fires. Erickson Incorporated, a manufacturer of utility aircraft, has deployed six S-64 Air Crane helicopters to fight the devastating fires. With this type of manned aircraft, firefighters are able to quickly access rural and remote areas of Australia to strategically battle the blaze.

Australia Bushfires

Image Source: Erickson Incorporated

Australia Asks Drone Operators to “Stay Away” From Bushfires

In addition to manned aircraft like helicopters, unmanned aircraft (i.e. drones) can also be used to assist areas affected by bushfires. But, before we discuss how drones can help Australia with recovery efforts, it’s important that we address the safety concerns of flying drones near bushfires.

In no scenario should a drone pilot fly near an active bushfire without permission from Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

In a statement from the CASA:

A current combined flight information region (FIR) NOTAM warns of ‘unnotified intense aviation activity associated with firefighting operations,’ and requests pilots of manned aircraft to remain 5 nm clear of a bushfire horizontally and more than 3000 ft AGL. Unmanned aircraft should only be flown 5 nm horizontally away from a fire and no higher than 120 m or 400 ft AGL.

Flying a drone in the same airspace as fire fighting aircraft creates a real risk of a mid-air collision. The smoke has created extremely limited visibility for aircraft involved in the fire fighting and evacuation efforts. Just take a look at this footage showing an Australian military aircraft attempting to land in Victoria, where residents are awaiting evacuation transport, amid a deep red haze caused by bushfire smoke.

Helicopter Surrounded by Red Haze From Australia Bush Fire Smoke

How Drones Can Aid in Recovery Efforts After the Fires

While drones are asked to stay away from the active fires, they will likely be called upon to assist after the fact in post-disaster recovery efforts.

One Australian drone software company, Propeller Aero, has extended free drone surveying services to those affected by the fires.

They announced the offer on Twitter, asking those located in Australia and in need of a survey of a bushfire-affected area to contact them.

Drones equipped with mapping and surveying software can be used to visualize damage in affected areas. With the drone-collected visuals and data, crews setting out to deliver aid, reconstruction, and relief can determine where to prioritize their efforts. This could include surveying damage sustained to residential neighborhoods, facilitating insurance claims and addressing the thousands who have been made homeless by this disaster.

[Related: Learn more about the legal requirements for operating a drone in Australia.]

As the bushfires continue to scorch the country, with 15.6 million acres already burned, the devastation to wildlife is also of concern. According to a report from The University of Sydney, it’s estimated that 480 million animals have died or lost their habitats since the bushfires in NSW started in September 2019.

Australia Bushfires Satellite

NASA satellite imagery on 4th January 2020 showing bushfires on southeast coast of Australia. Source: NASA Earth Observing System Data and Information System 

When recovery efforts begin, Australia could accelerate reforestation with drone technology, like that demonstrated by DroneSeed in areas of California and Oregon that were also damaged by intense fires. DroneSeed uses swarms of drones to quickly plant new trees. Each drone can carry up to 57 pounds of seeds and is equipped with software to deploy seed vessels to targeted areas, called microsites, where they’ll grow best. The drone swarms cover large areas of land faster than could be covered by a single drone (and significantly faster than hand planting).

It will take the hands of many volunteers, first responders, and international support to help Australia rebuild. The US, Canada, and New Zealand are actively assisting by sending additional firefighters to Australia.

The discussion about Australia’s bushfires continues over here on our community forum. Share your thoughts and ideas about how drones can safely provide aid to the affected areas.

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