Contest to end extreme fire events

XPRIZE, which conducts incentive competitions to solve some of humanity’s great challenges, has launched XPRIZE Wildfire, a four-year contest, which will award $16m to competing teams that find ways to innovate firefighting technologies and end destructive bushfires.

The Australian Minderoo Foundation, which is one of the XPRIZE Wildfire sponsors, is inviting Australian scientists, engineers and startups specialising in robotics, autonomous systems, earth observation, AI, sensors, satellite communications and related fields to enter the competition to discover new technologies, which will improve detection, monitoring and swiftly suppress dangerous bushfires, in a bid to prevent another Black Summer as witnessed in Australia in 2019-20.

Mindaroo said in a statement extreme bushfires in Australia and globally were increasing in number and severity. The Black Summer bushfires alone had doubled Australia’s carbon emissions. Researchers estimated it could take 20 years for the atmosphere to reabsorb the carbon they caused.

According to the Insurance Council of Australia’s Insurance Reciliance Report 2020-2021 report, by the time all fires were fully contained, insurers had received almost 39,000 claims totalling more than $2.3bn. About one-third of claims by value were from commercial customers and two-thirds from residential customers.

In all, 33 people had lost their lives and 450 people had since died because of smoke related illness and many more were still experiencing mental health issues because of the Black Summer bushfires, which destroyed 35m ha and 3bn animals.

Mindaroo said fire management technologies had not evolved in decades and best practices had not changed in almost a century.

XPRIZE Wildfire would incentivise teams from around the world to innovate across a wide range of technologies in two complementary tracks designed to transform how fires were detected, managed and fought:

  • In the Space-Based Wildfire Detection & Intelligence track, teams would have one minute to accurately detect all fires across a landscape bigger than entire states or countries and 10 minutes to precisely characterise and report data with the least false positives to two ground stations.
  • In the Autonomous Wildfire Response track, teams would have 10 minutes to autonomously detect and suppress a high-risk fire in a 1000sq km environmentally challenging area, leaving any decoy fires untouched.

The Lockheed Martin Accurate Detection & Intelligence Bonus Prize would be awarded for innovations in accurate and precise detection of wildfires.

Research by the Australian National University has found early fire detection could reduce bushfire costs in Australia by up to $8.2bn over the next 30 years.

Minderoo fire and flood resilience initiative fire shield mission lead Dr Karen O’Connor said: “We need real time space-based detection so firefighters can have information that will enable them to prioritise their resources to suppress these dangerous fires and … keep communities safe.”

The NSW Rural Fire Service is working with Minderoo and XPRIZE to test the technologies as part of the competition.

NSW RFS commissioner Rob Rogers said early detection and response were crucial in protecting communities.

“It is vital that fire agencies continue to assess and adopt new technologies to ensure they are ready for future extreme fire seasons,” he said. “XPRIZE Wildfire provides a great opportunity to see the exciting future of firefighting.”