Our mechatronics research team is developing technology that could enable a wider use of robotic systems and reduce the extreme risk posed to our firefighters.

Bushfire drones could save lives

23 October 2013

A University of Newcastle mechatronics team is developing technology that could enable a wider use of robotic systems and reduce the extreme risk posed to our firefighters.


Associate Professor Tristan Perez is working with the Australian Department of Defence and leading companies like Boeing Research and Technology Australia to research and develop ground-breaking strategies for guidance, navigation, and motion control for a flock of next generation Intelligent Autonomous Vehicles (IAV).

A/Prof Perez said IAV technology had the potential to minimise risk to firefighters by removing, as much as possible, humans from the dangerous frontline.

"Fleets of fully autonomous aircraft could be used in the future to monitor bush areas for rapid detection of fire spots to reduce the firefighters' response time.  The same aircraft could be used for personnel support by incorporating various sensors, communication capabilities and human interfaces for streaming information to improve situational awareness. 

"Water-bombing helicopters could also be unmanned. These vehicles operate in low visibility, high winds, and with high chances of getting the buckets entangled in power lines. By removing the pilot we remove most of the risk."

A/Prof Perez said to integrate IAVs in spaces shared with piloted vehicles, progress was needed along four fronts: technology, regulation and certification, economics, and public acceptance. 

"Although there have been great technological developments in IAVs such as unmanned aircraft, there are still areas that require further development, including 'sense and avoid' for obstacles and other vehicles, human factors for better human-machine communication, robust communication links, and emergency-handling situations where the vehicle health is compromised.

"When it comes to regulation and certification, a key question is how do we assess the quality of decision-making as the level of autonomy in the vehicles increase? Today, unmanned vehicle operations use only remotely piloted vehicles. As the level of autonomy increases, there is a need for new risk management frameworks and regulation that could handle higher levels of autonomy.

A/Prof Perez said the cost of unmanned vehicles was still inhibiting.

"One way to reduce the cost is to use multiple cheaper vehicles and share resources but this brings significant challenges in terms of safety, regulation, and certification."

A/Prof Perez and his team at the University of Newcastle are working in collaboration with Boeing Research and Technology Australia and RMIT University to create a new framework for assessments of autonomy that could enable the future certification of fully autonomous vehicle operations.

"We are also working in collaboration with Boeing and the University of Queensland in the development of novel robust navigation systems that could respond to GPS attacks.

"As we work hard in developing some of the enabling factors of this technology, we can't wait for the future of fire fighting operations where humans and machines co-operate to minimise hazards. New technology is upon us but with it comes new challenges, and we are onto them.

Video courtesy of ITN Network 

In the media

ITN News | Firefighter drones concept idea

The Australian | John Ross | Firefighting drones could do the dangerous work

The Huffington Post | Firefighter drones concept idea

Contact: Jessica Sullivan
Contact Phone: +612 4985 4171 or 0428 038 477.
Contact Email: media@newcastle.edu.au