Supernova research turned upside down to find fires, fast.
By Tom Burton, The Australian Financial Review
Australian space intelligence company Fireball.International is using real-time satellite images, ground cameras, sensors and powerful artificial intelligence to find bushfires within minutes, dramatically cutting emergency response times.
The company is employing technology originally used to look at supernova explosions, developed by University of Southern Queensland Adjunct Professor Carl Pennypacker. The technology has instead been turned “upside down” to look downwards for fires, specifically focused on early smoke emissions.
Each year the Fireball system analyses around one million images – half from satellites – and uses artificial intelligence to quickly identify new smoke plumes.
The Sunshine Coast-based company has secured several US western state contracts to monitor about 50 million hectares for wildfires. In the 2020 California fire season, Fireball detected and confirmed more than 850 fires.
“I think 65 per cent of all the fires we detect within a minute. And I think it’s 95 within five minutes and 100 per cent within 10 minutes,” Fireball chief executive and founder Christopher Tylor said.
He said the speed of detection enabled firefighters to quickly gain control of fires with early and more aggressive attacks.
Mr Tylor said a New Zealand study revealed it took about 30 minutes for fire to be reported using traditional reporting systems and then typically it took another 30 to 40 minutes before a response was mounted.
CSIRO research has shown fire areas can grow by 300 per cent within two hours of ignition. The research showed that every 10-minute delay in detecting a fire can see it grow up to 1500 square metres.
Former Data61 chief Adrian Turner has been leading a data-led program for the Minderoo Foundation with a goal of being able to extinguish dangerous fires within an hour by 2025.
Map the whole planet
Mr Turner joined Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation after he was caught in the 2020 black-summer fires as they ravaged his property in the NSW southern highlands.
Mr Tylor confirmed his company is also working with the Australian National University to put its technology on an Australian satellite due to be launched in 2022 using a rocket from Gold Coast operator Gilmour Space Technologies, expected to be launched from a northern Queensland facility.
Mr Tylor said Fireball was planning on deploying payloads on up to 24 satellites by 2028 to map the whole planet for fires. A demonstration of the technology using a controlled fire at Noosa local airport is planned for later in January.
The Fireball intelligence system is supported by Amazon Web Services and its new space division, which includes a global network of ground Earth stations. The first southern hemisphere ground station began operating in Sydney last year.
AWS plans to open a second Australian ground station, in Melbourne, in the second half of 2022.
The rapid development of large-scale data space infrastructure comes with the launch of the Australian Space Centre in Adelaide in 2020, the centrepiece of a federal space strategy.
The Civil Space Strategy aims to triple the size of Australia’s space sector to around $12 billion and grow an additional 20,000 jobs by 2030.
New space division
According to the government’s strategy the Australian space sector is expected to grow at an annualised 7.1 per cent over the five years through 2023–24. The extra economic value created is also expected to grow at an annualised 8.6 per cent, compared to an expected growth in Australian GDP over the same period of 2.7 per cent.
The explosion in the use of low-orbit satellites and ground-based, internet-connected sensors, combined with powerful cloud-based analytics software has led Amazon to aggressively build a new space division.
The division aims to service demands by companies and governments looking to exploit space-based technologies to monitor weather, climate hazards, emergencies, mining and agriculture.
“Low-latency internet, high-resolution Earth observation, and ubiquitous internet-of-things communications companies will launch thousands of new satellites over the next five years to provide sensing capabilities to customers around the world,” Teresa Carlson, vice-president of worldwide public sector at Amazon Web Services, said.
“The space landscape has dramatically shifted over the past 10 years, and this has created an enormous need for new types of innovation for space-based missions.”
Ms Carlson said to do this today customers must build or lease ground antennas to communicate with the satellites, a significant undertaking because of the need for antennas in multiple countries to download data when and where they need it without waiting for the satellite to pass over a desired location.
“They’ve not been able to really again take advantage of the machine learning, or AI, in real time because the data lag … it’s all very slow.”
While the time taken for satellite signals to reach Earth has challenged operators looking for real-time responses, a major source of delay has been the data-processing times needed.
Geoscience Australia has used AWS’ data cloud system to speed up the processing of satellite heat maps, also used for fire detection.
Amazon claims that by using AWS Ground Station, customers can save up to 80 per cent of their ground station costs by paying for antenna access time on demand.
The interest in space monitoring has seen the emergence of several analytic companies focused on agriculture.
Farmbot has developed a range of monitoring devices that enable farmers to remotely check water levels, flow and pressure rates along with diesel, rainfall and staff movements.
In one case a South Australian grazier has reduced water runs by 90 per cent. A Northern Territory cattle station has saved more than $20,000 a year on labour and time using the Farmbot solution.