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Australia primed to be leader in bushfire detection

A remote sensing expert has said that Australia could become a global leader in satellite missions for enhanced bushfire monitoring.

Ahead of her keynote address at the AusSpace24, Dr Marta Yebra, professor in environmental engineering at ANU, said there is “immense value” in extracting data sets from earth observation services.

She told Space Connect that they could provide real-time, comprehensive, spatial information about the state of the landscape, weather, impacts on vegetation, and recovery.

“Australia is well served to lead the way and start planning satellite missions that are fit for the purpose of better fire monitoring,” she said.


Remote sensing data can be used to detect the location and spread of fires and predict which areas have more fuel loads and, as such, are more prone to fires.

It could also be used to extract valuable weather information, as hotter, drier weather indicates a higher risk of bushfires.

“Decision makers can see what’s going on in real-time and use that to make informed decisions rather than trying to make decisions without this comprehensive data set,” Dr Yebra said.

“The managers can be better prepared, issue public alerts to evacuate certain areas or total fire bans, close schools, and take additional steps to decrease risks.”


Dr Yebra and a team of scientists at ANU are leading the development of the first Australian satellite designed to predict where bushfires are likely to start, and those that will be difficult to contain.

The satellite will accurately measure forest fuel load, vegetation moisture and dryness levels in real time for bushfire prevention in Australia, with the technology tailored to detect changes in Australian plants and trees such as eucalypts, which are highly flammable.

What sets this satellite apart from those currently available is that it has been designed for purpose, with the scientists collecting a significant amount of data on the ground to ensure that the payload is sensitive to the variations of the parameters required to assess bushfire risk in Australia, Dr Yebra explained.

“In that sense, the bandwidth of the payloads is different to those that are currently assisting with other missions,” she said.

“But most importantly, it is designed in Australia which means it will support the growth of the Australian space industry, which is relatively young compared with other countries.”

Speaking about how the project is progressing, Dr Yebra said scientists have fully designed the fuel payload, and have been conducting field experiments to determine which bands in the electromagnetic spectrum are more sensitive to the traits that are related to the flammability of the landscape.

“With the data that we have collected on the ground, we are specifying which bands we need for the payload,” Dr Yebra explained.

In 2020, the project received a boost through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage grant, with additional support provided by the NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the ACT Environment, The University of Lleida (Spain), and ACT Parks and Conservation.

Scientists will combine real-time monitoring with physical models to predict the moisture content in forest fuels and provide early warning of the likelihood of bushfires, Dr Yebra said.

“The more data you collect, the more applicable your sensor will be to other fuel types not only in Australia but also worldwide,” she said.

“It’s one thing to develop the payload and extrapolate data, but it’s another thing to convert the data into information that is useful for fire managers. To do that, we need to do a lot of modelling and algorithm management. We are also creating image simulators that can simulate images as if they were taken from space.”

The images could be used to calibrate algorithms for fuel moisture content, fuel loads, and other parameters, which the scientists can use to demonstrate the value of these products to the day-to-day operations of fire managers, she said.

She concluded: “We have a team which is making progress on developing the optics of the payload. We have also applied for more funding for building an engineering prototype of the system. We are waiting for the outcome of that application.”

Last year, Space Connect reported that SmartSat CRC and the ACT government will invest in a new research project that will bring together the ANU and EOS Space Systems to deliver “advanced manufacturing technologies” for the existing OzFuel instrument, a key payload of the Earth Observation Resilience satellite mission.

To hear Dr Marta Yebra’s keynote address about the key role of earth observation data in detecting and managing bushfires, come along to the AusSpace24 Australian Space Summit and Exhibition.

It will be held on 28 and 29 May 2024 at ICC Sydney.

Click here to buy tickets and don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

Adam Thorn

Adam Thorn

Adam is a journalist who has worked for more than 40 prestigious media brands in the UK and Australia. Since 2005, his varied career has included stints as a reporter, copy editor, feature writer and editor for publications as diverse as Fleet Street newspaper The Sunday Times, fashion bible Jones, media and marketing website Mumbrella as well as lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Woman’s Weekly, Men’s Health and Loaded. He joined Momentum Media in early 2020 and currently writes for Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.

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