How drones, robots and artificial intelligence are helping emergency services tackle wildfires

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Britain recorded its hottest day on record last Tuesday, sparking a series of wildfires across the UK.

Firefighters in London described the blazes tearing through homes and buildings as ‘absolute hell’ after receiving 1,600 calls for assistance. 

They warned the public that wildfires are likely to break out every three years, and that the destruction of homes should be a ‘wake-up call’ to the country. 

Global experts are urging countries to reach their net-zero targets and halt climate change. This is widely agreed to be the leading cause of the recent spate of wildfires, as rising temperatures evaporate more moisture from the ground, drying out the soil and making vegetation more flammable if sparked.

Meanwhile, scientists and engineers have developed a range of new technologies that can help predict and tackle these devastating blazes.

These include computer models that plot potential fire paths, water-dropping drones and autonomous robots that can detect fire sources and spray water.

MailOnline asked Professor Stefan Doerr, a professor of wildland fire science at Swansea University, whether any of these technologies could be implemented in the UK.

He revealed that while wildfires are more difficult to predict here, as they are largely ignited by humans, there is more that can be done to prevent them.

Scientists and engineers have also developed a range of new technologies that can help predict and tackle these devastating blazes. This includes computer models that plot potential fire paths, water-dropping drones and autonomous robots that can detect fire sources and spray water (stock image)

Britain recorded its hottest day on record last Tuesday, sparking a series of wildfires across the UK. Around 15 fire engines and 100 firefighters alone dealt with a vicious blaze in the Essex village of Wennington that destroyed two houses (pictured)

Britain recorded its hottest day on record last Tuesday, sparking a series of wildfires across the UK. Around 15 fire engines and 100 firefighters alone dealt with a vicious blaze in the Essex village of Wennington that destroyed two houses (pictured) 

Wildfire expert Professor Stefan Doerr said that Fire and Rescue Services should be trained how to tackle wildfires specifically to help the UK prepare for future blazes (stock image)

Wildfire expert Professor Stefan Doerr said that Fire and Rescue Services should be trained how to tackle wildfires specifically to help the UK prepare for future blazes (stock image)

Why do we need to prevent wildfires in the UK?

Last week wildfires started all across southern Europe including in Spain, Italy, France and the UK. 

The London Fire Brigade declared a ‘major incident’ in response to a huge surge in fires across the capital, and recorded its busiest day since the Second World War.

Researchers have warned that 104°F (40°C) temperatures won’t be out of the ordinary within the next three decades, and heatwaves will become more common.

Wildfires are likely to come with them, and pose a major threat to life as well as buildings and infrastructure.

Speaking exclusively to MailOnline, Professor Doerr said: ‘Vegetation fires destroy crops, lead to loss of carbon stored in the soil and peatlands, the loss of vegetation can promote erosion and landslides during heavy rains, and the ash from wildfires can contaminate rivers and drinking water reservoirs. 

‘Where fires are natural part of the ecosystem, for example in western USA, southeast Australia and African savannas, they maintain ecosystem diversity unless they are too frequent, too large or too severe. 

‘Elsewhere they may also have some benefits by generating ecological niches, but are generally detrimental to the environment. 

‘Their effects on wildlife and fauna may last from a few months to many years.’

The wildland fire science expert also predicted which areas of the UK will have the highest risk of wildfires.

He said: ‘From a climate perspective the south east is more affected as that is where it is warmest and driest.

‘But from a vegetation perspective, the heathlands and grasslands of Wales and Scotland are most at risk due to their extensive nature.’

Wildfires pose a major threat to human life and wildlife as well as buildings and infrastructure. They are set to become a more regular occurrence as the climate continues to change. Pictured is wildfire damage at Lancashire Wildlife Trust

Wildfires pose a major threat to human life and wildlife as well as buildings and infrastructure. They are set to become a more regular occurrence as the climate continues to change. Pictured is wildfire damage at Lancashire Wildlife Trust

Temperatures hit an unprecedented 40.2°C (104.4°F) at London Heathrow Airport at 12.50pm on July 19 2022– Britain's hottest day in recorded history

Temperatures hit an unprecedented 40.2°C (104.4°F) at London Heathrow Airport at 12.50pm on July 19 2022– Britain’s hottest day in recorded history 

What technologies are available?

 1. Artificial intelligence technologies

A common problem with wildfires is that, by the time they have been detected, they have already spread widely and are causing significant destruction.

Some companies are developing artificial intelligence (AI) tools that can spot blazes at their very early stages using satellite images. 

US-based Descartes Labs and OroraTech in Germany search for telltale signs of a fire, like smoke or changes in thermal infrared data, in satellite images of problem areas every few minutes.

Algorithms trained to look for different properties of a wildfire are then run and, if one is detected, its coordinates are sent to fire officials.

However, Professor Doerr thinks the common causes of wildfires renders these forecasting tools less effective in Britain.

He said: ‘In the UK nearly all vegetation fires are started by human activity, accidental or on purpose, and this is unpredictable. 

‘The technologies we have available can detect automatically when a fire has already started. 

‘These are very useful in remote areas or areas which are especially at risk. 

‘The UK is so densely populated, at least where fire poses a risk to humans, that these automated detection systems provide little advantage over the public themselves detecting fires.’

Descartes Labs searches for telltale signs of a fire, like smoke or changes in thermal infrared data, using satellite images of problem areas. Algorithms trained to look for different wildfire properties are then run and, if one is detected, its coordinates are sent to fire officials

Descartes Labs searches for telltale signs of a fire, like smoke or changes in thermal infrared data, using satellite images of problem areas. Algorithms trained to look for different wildfire properties are then run and, if one is detected, its coordinates are sent to fire officials

SATELLITE IMAGES SHOW EUROPE’S WILDFIRE DAMAGE

Shocking satellite images from the European Space Agency have revealed the extent of the damage caused by wildfires as the heatwave swept across western Europe last week:

La Teste-de Buch, before wildfires broke out on July 12

The burn scar and active hotspots can be seen on July 17, after wildfires reached all the way to the beach

In images taken on 12 July and 17 July, the burn scar and active hotspots can be seen near La Teste-de Buch, where wildfires reached all the way to the beach

See more here 

AI can also predict how a fire may grow and move once it has started, and is widely used in fire-prone countries like the US, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Australia. 

Tools like WIFIRE Firemap in the US can help authorities plan evacuations and make judgement calls on the best way to tackle a growing blaze.

The models use real-time data from satellites like weather, topography and dryness along with cameras, on-ground sensors and aircraft equipped with infrared radars. 

It can tell firefighters the location of a fire, the rate its spreading and in which direction.

However, Professor Doerr does not think this will be useful in the UK.

He said: ‘They require good data on how vegetation is distributed, how it will burn under different meteorological conditions. 

‘In the UK those data are not yet available to enable a good prediction of how fires will behave in some of the typical vegetation we have, for example heather.’

Professor Doerr and other scientists are working on a project called ‘Toward a UK Fire Danger Rating System’ (UKFDRS).

Currently, the Met Office does provide a Fire Severity Index (FSI), an assessment of how severe a fire could become if one were to start.

‘It is not an assessment of the risk of wildfires occurring, and we do need a more tailored Fire Danger Rating System,’ said Professor Doerr.

The team are researching the key components required to build an effective, tailored fire danger rating system that can establish the likelihood and impact of wildfires in the country. 

Professor of wildland fire science Professor Doerr thinks the common causes of wildfires renders these forecasting tools less effective in Britain. He said: 'In the UK nearly all vegetation fires are started by human activity, accidental or on purpose, and this is unpredictable.' Pictured: OroraTech wildfire detection system over Lillooet in British Columbia, Canada

Professor of wildland fire science Professor Doerr thinks the common causes of wildfires renders these forecasting tools less effective in Britain. He said: ‘In the UK nearly all vegetation fires are started by human activity, accidental or on purpose, and this is unpredictable.’ Pictured: OroraTech wildfire detection system over Lillooet in British Columbia, Canada

Tools like WIFIRE Firemap in the US can help authorities plan evacuations and make judgement calls on the best way to tackle a growing blaze. Pictured is the location of the Oak Fire in Mariposa County that began on Friday afternoon and remains uncontained

Tools like WIFIRE Firemap in the US can help authorities plan evacuations and make judgement calls on the best way to tackle a growing blaze. Pictured is the location of the Oak Fire in Mariposa County that began on Friday afternoon and remains uncontained

2. Drones

Classic aircraft are often too bulky to track or fight wildfires, and can struggle with visibility in darkness and thick smoke.

They also put their crews at risk; a pilot died in Portugal earlier this month while on a wildfire-fighting operation.

However, remotely controlled drones may provide a solution, as they can capture real-time data and inform responders from afar.

Firefighting drones can be equipped with thermal imaging cameras that capture wind direction, high-resolution imagery of smoke, and other variables.

They are also easy to pack and transport, and can be deployed in remote locations.

Drones could also deliver water to affected sites to help fight the fire directly, which is the vision of Spanish company Drone Hopper with their Wild Hopper drone.

The Wild Hopper is equipped with heat cameras that can help it first locate the fire and assess what type of fire it is, sending back data to the controllers.

It can then hover over a specific burning area and deploy its 600 litres of liquid cargo as a mist that is designed specifically for the type of blaze beneath it.

The Wild Hopper drone is equipped with heat cameras that can help it first locate the fire and assess what type of fire it is, sending back data to the controllers

The Wild Hopper drone is equipped with heat cameras that can help it first locate the fire and assess what type of fire it is, sending back data to the controllers

One release of two Wild Hopper drones can cover an area of 2,000 square-metres in 1,200 litres of water, which is equivalent to the performance of a 5,500-litre hydroplane. Pictured is a preventive firewalls created by the Wild Hopper drone

One release of two Wild Hopper drones can cover an area of 2,000 square-metres in 1,200 litres of water, which is equivalent to the performance of a 5,500-litre hydroplane. Pictured is a preventive firewalls created by the Wild Hopper drone

3. Robots 

Along with drones, remote control robots are being deployed into burning wildlands to tackle the blaze from the ground.

Dronster, from Spanish firefighting equipment manufacturer Vallfirest, has been specifically designed for the job.

The bushcutter robot is equipped with a digger that can create trenches that stop a fire from spreading, while collecting data of interest like humidity and temperature.

It is also able to transport equipment to remote areas, and take wounded people away from scenes of devastation.

Dronster , from Spanish firefighting equipment manufacturer Vallfirest, has been specifically designed to help tackle wildfires by digging defence lines and carrying equipment

Dronster , from Spanish firefighting equipment manufacturer Vallfirest, has been specifically designed to help tackle wildfires by digging defence lines and carrying equipment

The Multiscope Rescue Hydra from Estonia’s Milrem Robotics looks like a military tank but is actually able to shoot out torrents of water and foam.

Able to be controlled remotely, the 3.5-pound (1.6-kilo) bot can dispel extinguishing fluids at distances of up to 62 metres. 

A prototype of an autonomous firefighting robot that can make intelligent decisions was also developed at New York University. 

Students created the machine that uses information from onboard sensors to move around without colliding with obstacles.

It has an arm equipped with a nozzle attached to a water tank and a heat-sensing camera.

The arm moves around and uses its camera to search for the heat source, before it aims its nozzle and sprays water directly onto the fire.

The design won them the 2020 Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge.

The FlameRanger from Swedish robotics company Unifire, uses similar technology to locate hotspots before deploying up to 5,000 litres per minute of water or foam.

Its commercialised robot has thermal imaging and flame detecting sensors linked to nozzles on robotic arms. 

These are able to locate a fire in three dimensions and estimate its size before directing a water or foam spay at its source to extinguish it.

The autonomous FlameRanger robot, from Swedish robotics company Unifire, uses sensors to locate fire hotspots before deploying up to 5,000 litres per minute of water or foam

The autonomous FlameRanger robot, from Swedish robotics company Unifire, uses sensors to locate fire hotspots before deploying up to 5,000 litres per minute of water or foam

The commercialised robot has thermal imaging and flame detecting sensors linked to nozzles on robotic arms. These are able to locate a fire in three dimensions and estimate its size before directing a water or foam spay at its source to extinguish it

The commercialised robot has thermal imaging and flame detecting sensors linked to nozzles on robotic arms. These are able to locate a fire in three dimensions and estimate its size before directing a water or foam spay at its source to extinguish it

A prototype of an autonomous firefighting robot that can make intelligent decisions was developed by students at New York University. It has an arm equipped with a nozzle attached to a water tank and a heat-sensing camera

A prototype of an autonomous firefighting robot that can make intelligent decisions was developed by students at New York University. It has an arm equipped with a nozzle attached to a water tank and a heat-sensing camera

Its robot arm moves around and uses its camera to search for the heat source, before it aims its nozzle and sprays water directly onto the fire. The design won the students the 2020 Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge

Its robot arm moves around and uses its camera to search for the heat source, before it aims its nozzle and sprays water directly onto the fire. The design won the students the 2020 Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge

What should be done in the UK?

Reduce sources of ignition

As wildfires in the UK are largely ignited by humans, one of the most effective ways of preventing them would be through education.

‘Reducing ignitions requires educating the public and, for example, banning the use of disposable BBQs – especially during long dry spells and hot weather,’ said Professor Doerr.

Make landscape less flammable

Professor Doerr claims that another way of reducing wildfires would be to make the land itself less susceptible to burning.

He said: ‘Making the landscape less flammable involves removing very flammable vegetation – especially near properties. 

‘This is relatively cheap and can be done easily by the public and by land managers.

‘Dry grass, including agricultural crops, is especially flammable and allows fire to spread especially fast – as seen in the London fires. 

‘But it is also very easy to cut to reduce fire risk.’

Firewise-UK is a programme encouraging communities to work together to reduce the risk to homes from wildfire.

Its guidelines suggest creating space between trees, bushes and other flammable items like garden furniture, as well as trimming back trees or shrubs close to the house.

As wildfires in the UK are largely ignited by humans, one of the most effective ways of preventing them would be through education. Professor Doerr said: 'Reducing ignitions requires educating the public and, for example, banning the use of disposable BBQs'

As wildfires in the UK are largely ignited by humans, one of the most effective ways of preventing them would be through education. Professor Doerr said: ‘Reducing ignitions requires educating the public and, for example, banning the use of disposable BBQs’

Prescribed burning 

Prescribed burning is when a controlled fire is started in areas where excessive vegetation has accumulated during periods of less extreme weather.

This will help prevent the spread of wildfires if they do occur in the vicinity.

Professor Doerr said: ‘This can be done in strips of a few metres wide that limit the spread of a future fire. 

‘This technique is widely used in many countries, but not yet well established in the UK. 

‘We also have severe restrictions on the timing when such prescribed fires can be used. 

‘Experienced firefighters in the UK are urging policy makers to be more flexible with allowing such prescribed burns.’

Prescribed burns are being utilised in the US with drones fitted with the IGNIS system, created by Drones Amplified. 

The drones can carry ping-pong-ball-sized chemical spheres which can be dropped in target areas, and ignite between 30 and 60 seconds later. 

This allows drone operators to release the spheres with a high degree of accuracy in terrain that is often difficult to navigate with helicopters or planes 

Prescribed burning is when a controlled fire is started in areas where excessive vegetation has accumulated during periods of less extreme weather. This will help prevent the spread of wildfires if they do occur in the vicinity (stock image)

Prescribed burning is when a controlled fire is started in areas where excessive vegetation has accumulated during periods of less extreme weather. This will help prevent the spread of wildfires if they do occur in the vicinity (stock image)

Dedicated aircraft

Helicopters and other aircraft are used to tackle wildfires routinely in Europe and the US, but Professor Doerr claims this is not the case in the UK.

He said: ‘Once a fire has started and the flames are too long for fire service personnel to be tackled directly, helicopters or aircraft can be very effective. 

‘In the UK we do not have aircraft dedicated solely for wildfires and they have to be sourced from other providers, if possible, which means loss of valuable time.’

Wildfire training 

In recent years, the number of fire stations in the UK has been reduced, which could prove a problem as heatwaves are set to become more common with climate change.

Professor Doerr believes that the Fire and Rescue Services need to be better trained as to how to tackle vegetation fires specifically as the risk of them is increased.

He said:  ‘Fighting vegetation fires requires very different tools and approaches to urban firefighting. 

‘This includes stopping the fire by removing the fuel (indirect attack) and different and more flexible water delivery systems for putting out the fire (direct attack). 

‘Our fire services are world-class in terms of urban firefighting and increasingly trained to tackle vegetation fires.

‘But, compared to other countries, they are under-resourced with the relevant equipment, understaffed and not all have received the necessary training or have the relevant experience.’

Reach net-zero

A study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has shown that the number of days with extreme weather conditions has increased by over 50 per cent on average globally since 1979.

‘Scientists are in agreement that the weather conditions that promote wildfire – dry, hot spells and low humidity – will become more frequent in the UK,’ said Professor Doerr.

‘This will make fires more likely in the future. 

‘To slow down this acceleration we urgently need to stop further greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere.’

Helicopters and other aircraft are used to tackle wildfires routinely in Europe and the US , but Professor Doerr claims this is not the case in the UK. Pictured: A helicopter helps tackle a fire in Bozzano, Italy, that started Monday evening and forced 60 people to flee their homes

Helicopters and other aircraft are used to tackle wildfires routinely in Europe and the US , but Professor Doerr claims this is not the case in the UK. Pictured: A helicopter helps tackle a fire in Bozzano, Italy, that started Monday evening and forced 60 people to flee their homes

Britain’s record 40°C temperatures could be the norm within 30 years 

It may have been Britain’s hottest day in history last week, but researchers warn such 40°C temperatures won’t be out of the ordinary within the next three decades.

A new study suggests that extreme heatwaves will increase by more than 30 per cent over the coming years, after being fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities. 

Last Tuesday was the hottest day ever recorded in the UK, with the mercury surpassing 40.3°C (104°F).

But it serves as an early preview of what climate forecasters believe will be typical summer weather by 2050.

A new study, which analysed atmospheric circulation patterns and greenhouse gases, looked at data from just over a year ago when nearly 1,500 people died as average temperatures in the US and Canada more than doubled.  

 Read more here

Warning: A new study suggests extreme heatwaves will increase by more than 30 per cent in the next three decades. The shading in the image above represents surface air temperature anomalies, while the green vector denotes the jetstream. Two blue vectors show a heatwave that hit the US last year was linked to anomalous circulations in the North Pacific and the Arctic

Warning: A new study suggests extreme heatwaves will increase by more than 30 per cent in the next three decades. The shading in the image above represents surface air temperature anomalies, while the green vector denotes the jetstream. Two blue vectors show a heatwave that hit the US last year was linked to anomalous circulations in the North Pacific and the Arctic

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