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Every year Ontario experiences more than 700 forest fires, affecting more than 120,000 hectares of woodland.

Finding those fires and alerting fire rangers is a daunting task in a province as large as Ontario. But UTIAS Professor Hugh Liu thinks he may have a solution – UAVs – pilotless airplanes armed with thermal cameras.

Professor Liu, who heads the Flight Systems & Control group at UTIAS, is putting his theories to work, with the help of Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Brican Flight Systems of Brampton. Recently, he and his graduate students tested their system – a Brican-built plane equipped with a thermal camera – at MNR’s Burwash Training Centre. The test was a great success, Liu said. “Ten fires were randomly set up by MNR, and the UAV managed to detect 9 out of the 10. The only reason it didn’t detect the 10th was that we ran out of time – our current detection software only records for one hour.”

Video courtesy of Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

Liu said he was pleased with the results. “It demonstrates a fully functional proof-of-concept system for monitoring forest fires using UAVs,” he said.

More tests of the pilotless fire spotting planes are planned, Liu said, including, possibly, participating in real fire-monitoring missions.

Liu’s research focuses on autonomous flight for UAV and multi-UAV systems. “I was looking for potential applications for the systems, especially in civil and commercial aviation where I believe UAVs can play significant. Wildfires have been in the news, and after talking with U of T Forestry professor Brian Wotton, I realized that there is a great opportunity where we may apply the technology with obvious social and economic impact. “It would be such a satisfying and rewarding experience if our technology can contribute to fire management and to serve the community directly.”

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