Hot idea to detect bushfires with satellites wins top prize

UNSW Engineering students take out top prize at Mission Idea Contest

Imagine if satellite technology that detects and pinpoints bushfires had been around during the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. It could have helped to prevent the 173 deaths and over 2,000 homes from being destroyed. 

Bushfires could be spotted faster with the use of Cubesat technologies

Using shoebox-sized satellites to spot fires was the brainchild of Engineering students Siddharth Doshi, David Lam and Himmat Panag. The team presented their winning idea Cubesat constellation for monitoring and detection of bushfires in Australia at the Fourth Annual Mission Idea Contest in Bulgaria held this month.

Currently it’s difficult for large weather satellites to detect fires, as they often won’t have a high-enough resolution to spot fires as they develop. A secondary problem is that satellites might not be flying over locations where fires are emerging. 

To overcome this, the team’s design uses infra-red imaging technology to achieve a resolution of less than 100 square metres. Multiple Cubesats (tiny satellites) would fly over Australia in succession, with a proposed revisit time of less than 30 minutes, providing effective updates on fires as they develop. This strategy would allow fire agencies to gain important information about fires’ location and direction.

“We came up with project after speaking to fire analysts at Queensland and ACT emergency services. A system which can be used to detect small fires before they spread and monitor with a quick revisit time between images” said Siddharth. "We realised that technology had advanced to the point that this was now feasible."

The MIC was established in 2010 to provide students and industry professionals who are interested in space with an opportunity to present their creative ideas in the area of space exploration and exploitation. The UNSW trio embraced this theme with the vision of producing a solution to a widespread problem that impacts many Australians. Australia has experienced some of the largest bushfires in recorded history, and in recent years, fire seasons are becoming increasingly intense as a result of global warming. “Australian communities are particularly vulnerable to their effects - our towns and cities are surrounded by the bush” said fifth year combined degree engineering student Siddharth.

We realised that technology had advanced to the point that this was now feasible

Dr. Sean Tuttle from UNSW Canberra and Professor Andrew Dempster from UNSW provided the team with expert guidance and advice, to ensure that the proposal was technically sound.

The competition was a great opportunity for the team to share their proposal, which would have real, tangible outcomes, if implemented. Over the course of the competition, the students met with other entrants and researchers to exchange ideas, and gain feedback. 

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