Australia has been urged to significantly boost its capability to fight bushfires from the air.
The final report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry recommended governments and fire agencies accelerate the wider use of aviation to help avoid a repeat of the horrific destruction caused by last summer's megafires.
Front and centre among the inquiry's 76 recommendations are calls for the wider use of air-borne assets including drones, water-bombing aircraft, satellites and remote-sensing technologies to better prepare for fires and then control outbreaks.
The bushfire inquiry report - written by former NSW Police deputy commissioner Dave Owens and former NSW chief scientist Professor Mary O'Kane - urged the beefing up of the use of drones equipped with high-quality cameras and remote-sensing technologies to help map fire behaviour and direction, particularly when larger aircraft can't fly because of thick smoke and dangerous weather.
While acknowledging aircraft and drones played a key role in fighting last summer's unprecedented blazes, the report's authors expressed surprise that remote-sensing technologies hadn't been better harnessed as a fire fighting tool.
Last fire season the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) used data from a range of platforms equipped with remote-sensing technologies including land-based infrastructure, drones, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and satellites.
The report said data from all these sources had strengths and shortcomings but the sophisticated tools to bring all the information from these multiple sources together to quickly and automatically produce an overall reliable picture of bushfire activity had not yet been developed.
Australia also presently doesn't own or control any satellites or civilian high-altitude drones.
The report said NSW and Australia needed to enhance their remote-sensing bushfire capability as a "matter of priority".
Images from line scanning and other remote-sensing devices mounted on aircraft proved useful during the 2019-20 fires but the number of planes was limited and frequently grounded by adverse conditions.
The bushfire inquiry report said line scanning produced good quality imagery of fire edges and activity but only a small number of snapshots of each fire was possible.
The NSW RFS announced in May the purchase of two Cessna Citation aircraft with Overwatch TK-9 imaging systems capable of detecting fires as small as 15cm wide.
Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW), the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Forestry Corporation of NSW now operate drones equipped with remote-sensing equipment.
The inquiry report said FRNSW has 15 drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and specialised infra-red sensors. Six were deployed during last summer's fires on 50 missions.
Key stakeholders told the inquiry much greater use of drones was needed.
The report recommended the drone capabilities of FRNSW be significantly bolstered with the extra assets located outside Sydney and shared with the likes of the NSW RFS.
It said NSW should become a global centre for fire fighting technology and megafire research and training.
As well, a bushfire technology fund should be established to assist with the rapid development of technologies to sense, fight, mop up, and prevent bushfires.
This research push should include trials to see if robotic machines developed by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at Sydney University for agriculture could be adapted for fire fighting including mopping up activities, identification and management of dangerous trees and fire trail maintenance.
Meanwhile, the inquiry said investigations were needed to ensure Australia had the right mix of aircraft to respond quickly and effectively to bushfire emergencies.
Currently Australia relied on a large number of small aircraft plus a few big water bombers and nothing much in between.
Last summer 317 aircraft were involved in NSW's bushfire battles including two very large air tankers (VLAT) and four large air tankers (LAT) which dropped 24 million litres of fire suppressant.
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