The Civil Aviation Safety Authority in Canberra was the first such organisation anywhere in the world to introduce a legal regime in which one could operate unmanned autonomous aircraft (officially referred to as RPAS). That move was in response to pressure from industry which wanted to be able to operate such devices legally, and to ground-breaking work by local researchers who, at one time, held a number of speed and endurance records.
An Australian-built UAV, for instance, was the first to fly the Atlantic.
And yet, fast forward fifteen years, and Australian industrial participation in the manufacture and sale of drone hardware is almost completely invisible, besides a handful of research efforts and ground-based hardware providers.
French company Parrot and DJI from China are among the largest drone manufacturers globally, with other Chinese and United States firms in hot pursuit. Most money is spent in the US (on the back of military spending) and in Europe. In terms of the number of drones produced, Australia ranks below New Zealand.
When it comes to the bigger picture, all of this does matter, so says Catherine Ball. The chief executive of Remote Research Ranges and a self-confessed drone nut, appeared at the CRCSI conference in Sydney in October. In her keynote she predicted, like many industry reports, that the use of autonomous aerial vehicles will continue to grow dramatically.
We are nowhere near peak drone,” Ball said
A recent report by research company Front and Sullivan predicts 10 per cent per annum growth in the take up of these devices. The UAV industry reportedly employs 110,000 people worldwide.
Ball was Telstra’s Queensland Business Woman of the Year in 2015. She won the award after her team flew autonomous RPAS hundreds of kilometres to track turtle habitats off the West Australian coast. They identified endangered animals that had not been seen in years. Now, she consults to governments around the world about technological transformation and inspires young woman to pursue STEM careers.
So, why should the spatial industry be interested? Ball says the two industries “fit together like Chewbaka and Han Solo.”
“Together they are more than the sum of their parts.”
Of course, they are becoming a vital tool in many survey practices, especially as imaging technology improves. Allied to smart photogrammetric systems, they are becoming the most economical way of surveying irregular piles, such as tailings dumps on mine sites.
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There is also a viable market in precision agriculture systems, where drones can be used to map farm paddocks or apply pesticides.
But drones also depend on spatial information and positioning technology for precise operation. This will be the case especially if we want to use them in close proximity to each other, or to people.
This may well come to pass, because there is increasing pressure to use them for urban deliveries. “In 20 years time, we will see multi-layer traffic in our cities,” Ball predicted.
Ball says generic drone technology is already well understood. The near term challenge for manufacturers is in what she called “designer drones”, the use of air vehicles for very specific tasks.
“Drones will revolutionise product deliveries, how we treat the sick and respond to emergencies. In Germany, for instance, they are used to carry heart defibrillators.”
“They may even carry people.”
‘Dronevertising’, the use of flying billboards, has already begun. Designers are now delivering drones that not only display a sponsor’s message, but carry on-board cameras that can watch your reaction. If you look interested then, like a souvenir salesman, the drone will follow you around.
Controversially, they hunt sharks off our beaches. Westpac, which has long supported manned helicopter operations on East Coast beaches, has recently conducted drone trials which, Ball says, give mixed results.
“If the lighting is good, and the beach sandy and relatively shallow, they are an excellent tool. If the beach shelves rapidly so there is deep water just off shore, or the bottom is dark, it is almost impossible to see them from the air.”
Either way, we can expect many more in the skies over our heads. The spatial industry will need to devise products that can guide them accurately and keep them safely navigating the skies.