Seeing through bushfire smoke

Cool thinking by an Australian defence scientist while a bushfire bore down on his family home provided first responders with clearer satellite images of the blaze, and likely prevented further devastation.

Launching WorldView 3 satellite that carries a Short Wave Infra-Red sensor. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Launching WorldView 3 satellite that carries a Short Wave Infra-Red sensor. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The Sampson Flat bushfires in South Australia claimed the lives of around 900 animals, destroying 27 houses along with other property in January 2015.

Chris Ekins evacuated his family, but while preparing to protect their home he heard on local ABC radio that aircraft were having difficulty seeing through the smoke.

At the Defence Science and Technology Group, Chris had been working with the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation and their counterpart in the US on systems to share geospatial information. He remembered that satellite company Digital Globe’s WorldView3 satellite carries a Short Wave Infra-Red sensor, specifically designed to look through the smoke of fires, and had the idea of using their sensors to get the big picture of the fire’s movement.

“Generally, bushfire support staff see oblique aerial video snippets from planes – like looking through a drinking straw – and emergency services use those feeds to form a broader picture,” Chris says.

“With this new approach, even though the satellite images aren’t in real-time, they can provide a bigger snapshot of the complete scene and much more georeferenced context information.

“This can help first responders see what’s already been burnt, and be used to direct efforts not only towards active fire fronts, but to judge what critical infrastructure is most at risk in the path of a fire.”

Chris contacted colleagues in Australia and the US, who made requests for images over the fire. He then worked with the South Australian Country Fire Service’s analysts to access the imagery, which they used to provide the most accurate information to their fighters and the public.

Banner image: Seeing through bushfire smoke with infra-red.
Credit: © Digital Globe