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Bushfire Hazard Detection System Being Developed in Australia

Image Credits: The University of Queensland, Press Release

A world-first real-time bushfire hazard detection and warning system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) is under development thanks to a new partnership between the University of Queensland and the philanthropic arm of an American multinational technology company. Led by UQ’s Professor Hamish McGowan, from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, the project plans to use AI to trace the movement of embers and deliver real-time nowcasts of extreme bushfire hazards.

The goal of the team’s work is ultimately to save lives, property and the environment by providing increased accuracy in forecasting bushfire movements and alerting community members and emergency responders before they spread, he said.

The $1.374 million grant from the charitable arm of the tech giant will enable UQ researchers to work on a new and robust capability to identify and forewarn locations up to 30 kilometres downwind from the fire front that may come under attack from embers – sometimes in areas previously perceived as safe.

In addition to funding the company’s philanthropic arm, the firm’s employees will have the opportunity to volunteer their time to help with this project. The Australian branch of the company’s Engineering Site Lead said UQ was charting new territory in bushfire detection.

The project will benefit Australia by identifying new AI solutions to detect bushfire activity – early on and in real-time –to safeguard at-risk communities, flora and fauna. Initiatives like this will help build a strong and more resilient digital future for Australia.

It has been just over two years since Australia’s Black Summer bushfires burnt an estimated 186,000 square kilometres of land. The impacts were devastating, with at least 33 people losing their lives, and fires destroying more than 6000 buildings, as well as killing or displacing an estimated three billion animals.

“We know that the effects of climate change are causing more extreme weather events including bushfires across the world and we are committed to helping find solutions that can lessen the impact,” Professor McGowan said.

The fallout of the 2019-20 bushfire season also saw smoke-related health costs climb to $1.95 billion. There were 429 smoke-related premature deaths in addition to 3230 hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory disorders and 1523 emergency attendances for asthma.

In similar news, a Griffith University-led three-year project to develop an early warning system in homes during extreme heat events has received more than $2 million in funding. The EtHOs project was awarded $2.35 million by a global charitable foundation to help limit the thousands of lives lost each year to heat stress.

Led by Dr Shannon Rutherford, from the School of Medicine and Dentistry, EtHOs is a multidisciplinary research team within the Climate Action research group that includes experts in aged-care nursing, IT, human physiology, engineering, climate science, health economics and environmental epidemiology.

The team recognised that climate change would lead to more extreme and frequent heat episodes and said action must be taken to reduce the risk to older populations who were more vulnerable to heat stress.

They aim is to develop an individualised early warning system for older people living at home specific to their home environment and to take into consideration that different people may be vulnerable to heat for different reasons and everyone has different needs for and levels of access to cooling options.

The team would like older people living at home and in the community to have access to a system that helps them, their families and care systems feel safe and confident in their homes as the world experiences more frequent and more intense heat events.

The heat stress early warning system’s appearance and how users interacted with it would depend on the perspectives of the project’s users and project partners.

Dr Sebastian Binnewies, from the Institute for Integrated and Intelligent Systems, will oversee the software development, testing and integration process. Dr Aaron Bach, from Cities Research Institute, will lead the development of the in-home monitoring system and the heat-health algorithm used to identify risk profiles.

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