Aerotech flying high for fire protection and ag support

At the height of summer on those hot, windy days, the sound of a helicopter overhead can be both confronting and comforting.

Confronting because it might mean a bushfire is burning nearby, but also comforting because the flames will soon be doused by over 3000 litres of liquid from aerial firefighting bombers.

The Aerotech Group is behind the aircraft most likely to be seen in these scenarios. During peak periods 10 fixed wing aircraft and three helicopters are on standby at Brukunga in the heart of the Adelaide Hills, as well as two fixed wing aircraft and two helicopters in Hoyleton in the Mid North, two fixed wing bombers in Mt Gambier and two fixed wing bombers in Port Lincoln.

In the past six years Aerotech has doubled its fleet to 28 aircraft, grown to 50 employees and has seen growth in revenue of about 15% per annum.

Around 20-25 people are usually stationed at the Brukunga base and within three minutes of a callout the aircraft can be in the air, travelling at 300km/hour to provide a rapid response to the emergency and gather information for the CFS.

This vital service, covering the entire state, has been provided by the McCabe family for more than 30 years.

Now operated by Sam McCabe, The Aerotech Group was established in 1968 in Tintinara in the Murray Mallee as a one aircraft, agriculture aerial application service that sprayed crops for local farmers.

Sam’s parents Pam and Bob took over the ailing business when the owners walked out, and over time the business has grown via acquisitions and diversification to become one of South Australia’s great success stories and the largest company of its type in Australia.

As well as being the managing director, Sam is also the chief pilot. While he jokes that flying is “the only thing I really feel I am good at”, his business acumen is evident in the rapid expansion of Aerotech.

Aerotech’s planes are crucial in the fighting of bushfires across the state.

The past six years has been a period of intense growth for The Aerotech Group which has four operating entities including Aerotech Agriculture, Aerotech 1st Response, which is responsible for aerial suppression of bushfires and aerial response to oil spills around Australia’s coastline, Aerotech Helicopters, and Aerotech Maintenance. During this period the business has doubled its fleet to 28 aircraft, 50 employees and has seen growth in revenue of around 15% per annum.

“The re-structure of the state’s firefighting fleet, as well as additional government funding for aerial firefighting has played a big role in Aerotech’s growth,” Sam says.

“We have established two new airbases to support our aerial firefighting efforts, and we are in the process of re-building our facility at Parafield Airport.

“The rebuild will allow us to relocate our head office from Kent Town to the new facility which will have capacity for us to conduct maintenance on four times the number of aircraft at any one time.”

The planes are also used in the spraying of crops.

Sam began flying lessons in Year 12, and earned his commercial pilot’s license at the age of 19. Although he doesn’t fly as much as he would like these days, he says he still puts himself on the ‘roster’ as much as he can.

“I love flying,” Sam says. “I have over 10,000 hours in the air and reckon I’ve done around 40,000 landings/takeoffs. The agriculture side of things is what I enjoy the most. Flying four-feet off the ground, under powerlines at 300km/hour is a massive adrenaline rush.”

The Aerotech Group has recently conducted testing which shows aerial agricultural application provides better results for farmers than ground application for crops.

“We are part of SA’s rural community, so we want to make sure we are doing the right thing in servicing our farmers,” Sam says. “Other than our head office, all of our airbases are located in regional areas, which means that the people we employ and their lives and families are part of regional areas. Not only that but, over the past 50 years of business, we have formed strong relationships and friendships with the farmers we look after.”

An Aerotech plane flies above an olive grove.

However, Sam says that aerial firefighting and offering protection for people and property, is the most rewarding part of his job.

“You never know what a fire season might bring,” Sam says. “Everyone always has a lot to say about it – whether it’s a wet winter with lots of ‘fuel’ on the ground, or if it’s been dry and people say the country will light up easily.

“Either way, when you as the pilot are able to see first-hand that you have saved a house from being burnt, or farming equipment, lives and livelihoods, that’s pretty satisfying.”

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Space app to help protect against bushfires

By Andrew Spence

A mobile app to help warn and protect communities from bushfires is being developed with a little help from NASA.

Two-man South Australian team TrentoScott – Trent Bowden and Scott Belcher – are developing their web-based application Wildfire and hope to make it available to the Mylor community when the fire danger season begins in November.

As more people sign up for the app it is planned to be rolled out to neighbouring Adelaide Hills districts later in the summer with a possible state-wide launch in 2018.

The duo began working on the project as part of NASA’s Space Apps Challenge, which was held in Adelaide and 186 other locations across 69 countries in April.

Trent Bowden and Scott Belcher are developing the Wildfire app to help protect communities from bushfires.

Trent Bowden and Scott Belcher are developing the Wildfire app to help protect communities from bushfires.

TrentoScott and the four-member FloodLight team, which developed a tool to provide emergency workers with up-to-date flood-risk maps, were chosen as Global Nominees from the 10-team Adelaide competition.

Bowden said the web application would be available on all devices and aimed to give communities, families and individuals the ability to see and respond to hazards around them.

He said Wildfire would also allow users to receive warnings and alerts during events such as bushfires or floods.

“Essentially it’s an interactive layer for a community to be able to respond and create a whole new level of awareness,” he said.

The app draws on freely available data from Sentinel satellites, which includes thermal signatures that reveal the locations and intensity of bushfires.

“People use technology every single day that has evolved from space technology,” Bowden said.

“We’re utilising space to create something really relevant for the community.

“As a two-person team we are getting through it quite fast and the next stage will be implementing it in a community scenario in the Adelaide Hills.”

The Wildfire app is expected to be available to the Adelaide Hills  community by November.

The Wildfire app is expected to be available to the Adelaide Hills community by November.

This month Adelaide will host the 68th International Astronautical Congress – the biggest global meeting of the space industry and the largest conference ever staged in South Australia.

Belcher said the NASA challenge opened his eyes to the huge opportunities space technology presented across a range of industries.

He said hosting the congress this month was a great chance for more local companies to generate ideas for space-inspired innovations.

“The fact that NASA isn’t just concerned with space is something we learnt,” Belcher said.

“It’s something that we’re really excited about and Adelaide is poised to capitalise on it – if the right investment and the right people are put into it then it could be a big opportunity for South Australia.”

The South Australian Government will have an exhibition stand at the conference, where they will be joined by 11 local space start-ups, including Myriota, Fleet Space Technologies, Neumann Space and Inovor Technologies, hoping to increase their footprint in the multi-billion-dollar global space industry.

Check out the video below to learn about Wildfire and how it could help you.

This month’s I Choose SA for Industries stories are made possible by sponsor, the University of South Australia.