Firefighters responding to a fire at a grain silo in Leeton last week have accidentally discovered a new use for their drones, which could significantly improve the response to emergencies across Australia.
Fire and Rescue NSW crews arrived at the business on Friday 24 November, where a smouldering fire had broken in a silo containing 600 tonnes of field peas.
With the risk that the silo could burn for days on end or potentially cause an explosion, they hatched a plan to relieve pressure on the silo by using ground level inspection panels to drain its contents into nearby augers.
Crews used a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) to look through the roof hatch and determined the pressure inside the silo was minimal.
The drone's thermal imaging camera was also detecting a falling heat signature from the silo, indicating that both the fire level and the silo's temperature were dropping as the grain was released.
Firefighters hadn't expected the real-time data - their handheld thermal devices hadn't been able to pick up the heat signatures.
Duty commander Matthew Hunter said the discovery could speed up the response to future silo fires.
"When boxed up in a silo, these fires generate a lot of heat but they're starved of oxygen," Mr Hunter said.
"As soon as you introduce oxygen to the silos, they can actually explode.
"We were reviewing and comparing the footage from the RPAS when we noticed there were a number of rings on the side of the silo and could see the heat signatures, captured on the video, dropping.
"We realised that was the actual grain level and it gave us a really good indicator of how fast the grain was draining, so we could manage the flow without causing the silo to collapse."
It's hoped firefighters across Australia could take advantage of the knowledge to improve their situational awareness and respond to fire emergencies more quickly.
The RPAS fleet is currently also used for fire and disaster intelligence, damage assessments, searches for missing people, hazard reduction burns, and fire zone measurement.
Fire and Rescue NSW also used drones to look for debris swept into cane fields during the Northern Rivers floods in 2022.