Fighting Bushfires Goes High Tech With Laser Drones, Sensors And Satellites
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Fighting Bushfires Goes High Tech With Laser Drones, Sensors And Satellites

Australia’s fire season looms and researchers are looking to move beyond ‘detecting fires with people in towers and binoculars’.

By Mike Cherney
Mon, Dec 14, 2020 12:57amGrey Clock 4 min

SYDNEY—In October, a sensor mounted on an 8.5-metre pole in the Australian countryside detected small particles in the air near a timber plantation and sent out an alert.

When plantation staff arrived, they found a small man-made fire that was already under control, but the incident offered a glimpse of how authorities hope to use new technology to battle bushfires that have grown increasingly intense in recent years.

As a new fire season begins in Australia—a recent bushfire ravaged about half of Fraser Island in the country’s east—researchers are looking to rely more on technology to find blazes quickly and better predict their path.

A monthslong government inquiry into the devastating 2019-2020 fire season in Australia, which killed more than two dozen people and burned an area bigger than Washington state, concluded that authorities need to be better prepared and recommended that officials work with the private sector to develop new technology.

“We’re still detecting fires with people in towers and binoculars. We’ve got to move beyond that,” said Leigh Kelson, program director at FireTech Connect in Australia, a government-funded effort to help startups develop new firefighting technologies. Firefighters also rely on the equivalent of 911 calls to find new blazes.

The ideas researchers are exploring include fitting drones with lasers that can map dry areas at higher fire risk and whether satellites can detect extreme fire behaviour.

Last fire season, authorities were surprised by how quickly the blazes spread and how long they burned, which they later attributed to a prolonged drought that had left the land parched with plenty of dry vegetation to fuel the flames. Last year was Australia’s hottest year on record, according to the government’s Bureau of Meteorology, and fires are projected to become more intense and frequent because of climate change.

Parts of Australia have received more rainfall in recent months, and the current fire season isn’t expected to be as severe. Still, firefighters have struggled to control some of the blazes. The fire on Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world and a Unesco World Heritage site, prompted officials to tell some residents to evacuate from homes in the path of the flames. On Sunday, firefighters said rainfall had finally helped to contain that blaze, which started in mid-October.

Other regions, including the western U.S. and even in frosty Siberia, have experienced particularly intense fire seasons recently, stretching global firefighting resources and making early detection of fires more crucial. Fires left unchecked can create their own weather systems, raining embers down on nearby communities and pushing dangerous smoke into big cities and even to neighbouring countries.

The sensor that picked up the October fire near the timber plantation is one of more than 40 in a network that covers an area nearly double the size of New York City in Australia’s Victoria state. The solar-powered, cylinder-shaped sensors are packed with instruments including optical and thermal cameras, flame detectors, particle counters for air quality, and ground-vibration readers. The data are publicly available online in real-time.

Attentis Pty. Ltd., a Melbourne, Australia-based company, finished installing the network in early 2019 as a pilot project to demonstrate the technology. They didn’t get much use detecting fires last season because the blazes were too far away.

Cameron McKenna, managing director at the company, said he is in talks to install similar sensor networks to improve fire detection capabilities in other parts of the country. “We use multiple methods of detection as opposed to a single method,” he said.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital, researchers are working with a local firefighting agency to install video cameras on four fire towers. One tower will also have a thermal camera installed.

A computer program will scan images from the thermal camera to detect fires, and a person will monitor the other video feeds. Researchers plan to develop a computer program to automatically scan the video feeds too, said Marta Yebra, director of the Australian National University Bushfire Initiative. The idea is to determine whether the cameras detect new fires quicker than the old-fashioned way of having a person in the fire tower, she said.

Rohan Scott, who leads the rural fire service in the Canberra area, said people in towers on average spot fires within seven minutes of ignition. But the towers are only staffed on high-risk days.

“If we can get detection 24/7 but at the same speed as a human-manned fire tower, then I think that would be a good outcome,” he said. “Anything quicker than that would be a definite bonus.”

Other ideas involve using drones fitted with lasers to create detailed maps so authorities know which areas have more dry vegetation and present a higher fire risk. One recent effort involved researchers poring over satellite imagery in an attempt to build a model for detecting extreme fire behaviour from orbit. They found that changes in smoke colours could help predict fire behaviour, according to the Minderoo Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsored the research.

One company, Fireball.International Pty. Ltd., says its machine-learning method can detect smoke from ground-based cameras and fires from heat signatures on thermal-satellite images. Its system is already being used by a big power company in California, and Fireball plans to begin pilot programs in Australia this fire season, executives said.

A prototype of the system detected smoke from fires within 15 minutes of ignition, while averaging less than one false positive a day per camera, according to an analysis published in a peer-reviewed journal in January. It said there is room for improvement.

“People are beginning to realise, ‘Gosh, we really can detect a fire in the first five minutes,’” said Tim Ball, an academic and co-founder of the company who is also a former firefighter.



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Should AI Have Access to Your Medical Records? What if It Can Save Many Lives?

We asked readers: Is it worth giving up some potential privacy if the public benefit could be great? Here’s what they said.

By DEMETRIA GALLEGOS
Tue, May 28, 2024 4 min

We’re constantly told that one of the potentially biggest benefits of artificial intelligence is in the area of health. By collecting large amounts of data, AI can create all sorts of drugs for diseases that have been resistant to treatment.

But the price of that could be that we have to share more of our medical information. After all, researchers can’t collect large amounts of data if people aren’t willing to part with that data.

We wanted to see where our readers stand on the balance of privacy versus public-health gains as part of our series on ethical dilemmas created by the advent of AI.

Here are the questions we posed…

AI may be able to discover new medical treatments if it can scan large volumes of health records. Should our personal health records be made available for this purpose, if it has the potential to improve or save millions of lives? How would we guard privacy in that case?

…and some of the answers we received. undefined

Rely on nonpartisan overseers

While my own recent experience with a data breach highlights the importance of robust data security, I recognise the potential for AI to revolutionise healthcare. To ensure privacy, I would be more comfortable if an independent, nonpartisan body—overseen by medical professionals, data-security experts, and citizen representatives—managed a secure database.

Anonymity cuts both ways

Yes. Simply sanitise the health records of any identifying information, which is quite doable. Although there is an argument to be made that AI may discover something that an individual needs or wants to know.

Executive-level oversight

I think we can make AI scanning of health records available with strict privacy controls. Create an AI-CEO position at medical facilities with extreme vetting of that individual before hiring them.

Well worth it

This actually sounds like a very GOOD use of AI. There are several methods for anonymising data which would allow for studies over massive cross-sections of the population without compromising individuals’ privacy. The AI would just be doing the same things meta-studies do now, only faster and maybe better.

Human touch

My concern is that the next generations of doctors will rely more heavily, maybe exclusively, on AI and lose the ability or even the desire to respect the art of medicine which demands one-on-one interaction with a patient for discussion and examination (already a dying skill).

Postmortem

People should be able to sign over rights to their complete “anonymised” health record upon death just as they can sign over rights to their organs. Waiting for death for such access does temporarily slow down the pace of such research, but ultimately will make the research better. Data sets will be more complete, too. Before signing over such rights, however, a person would have to be fully informed on how their relatives’ privacy may also be affected.

Pay me or make it free for all

As long as this is open-source and free, they can use my records. I have a problem with people using my data to make a profit without compensation.

Privacy above all

As a free society, we value freedoms and privacy, often over greater utilitarian benefits that could come. AI does not get any greater right to infringe on that liberty than anything else does.

Opt-in only

You should be able to opt in and choose a plan that protects your privacy.

Privacy doesn’t exist anyway

If it is decided to extend human lives indefinitely, then by all means, scan all health records. As for privacy, there is no such thing. All databases, once established, will eventually, if not immediately, be accessed or hacked by both the good and bad guys.

The data’s already out there

I think it should be made available. We already sign our rights for information over to large insurance companies. Making health records in the aggregate available for helping AI spot potential ways to improve medical care makes sense to me.

Overarching benefit

Of course they should be made available. Privacy is no serious concern when the benefits are so huge for so many.

Compensation for breakthroughs

We should be given the choice to release our records and compensated if our particular genome creates a pathway to treatment and medications.

Too risky

I like the idea of improving healthcare by accessing health records. However, as great as that potential is, the risks outweigh it. Access to the information would not be controlled. Too many would see personal opportunity in it for personal gain.

Nothing personal

The personal info should never be available to anyone who is not specifically authorised by the patient to have it. Medical information can be used to deny people employment or licenses!

No guarantee, but go ahead

This should be allowed on an anonymous basis, without question. But how to provide that anonymity?

Anonymously isolating the information is probably easy, but that information probably contains enough information to identify you if someone had access to the data and was strongly motivated. So the answer lies in restricting access to the raw data to trusted individuals.

Take my records, please

As a person with multiple medical conditions taking 28 medications a day, I highly endorse the use of my records. It is an area where I have found AI particularly valuable. With no medical educational background, I find it very helpful when AI describes in layman’s terms both my conditions and medications. In one instance, while interpreting a CT scan, AI noted a growth on my kidney that looked suspiciously like cancer and had not been disclosed to me by any of the four doctors examining the chart.

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