CHRIS GRIFFITH The Australian
THE skies are opening, but it’s not rain that’s falling. Rather, they’re opening to unmanned aerial vehicles – UAVs, to the uninitiated – from garden-variety models that can monitor your gutters and roof tiles to state-of-the-art flying robots capable of making their own decisions about where to go and what to do when they get there.
While drones may have begun life as military hardware, hitting centre stage in 2004 when US Air Force pilots remotely guided them to conduct strikes on foreign targets, these small airborne craft are fast finding application in more everyday settings.
The best known consumer UAV is the Parrot AR Drone, which was unveiled in 2010 and costs about $350. It can shoot video and live stream it to a controlling iPhone, iPad or Android device via Wi-Fi. Half a million have been sold, says its French manufacturer.
It was the Parrot that was famously used by TV station TV3 to film inside Christchurch Cathedral after the earthquake in 2010, when it was too dangerous to send people into the building.
News organisations have also used the AR Drone to film protests from above and to fly into dangerous locations for footage.
But it is at the grassroots level that drones are really coming into their own. Besides being put to work around people’s homes – from mundane rooftop surveillance to potentially snooping on what your neighbours are up to over the fence – businesses and governments are beginning to recognise their potential.
CSIRO is leading the charge, developing what is known as an autonomous drone which, unlike Parrot’s AR Drone, is not controlled every inch of the way but has the ability to “think” for itself after being programmed and sent on a mission.
These mini-helicopters “choose” their own flight path and twist and turn by themselves to get to their destination, taking into account changes in terrain and wind and other obstacles. Data is picked up via multiple onboard sensors, from cameras and radar to GPS and barometers, and is collated by the drone’s computer.
They can fly for extended periods in conditions considered too dangerous for manned aircraft, making them ideally suited to search and rescue activities, as well as flood mapping, disaster damage assessments and delivery of aid to remote communities.
Jonathan Roberts, research director of CSIRO’s Autonomous Systems Lab, says CSIRO has been working on the project, known as Project ResQu, with aerospace experts from Queensland University of Technology, Boeing Research & Technology-Australia and Boeing subsidiary Insitu Pacific for two years.
He recalls the first real challenge was programming a drone with the GPS co-ordinates of a farmer’s windmill. The mini-helicopter had to navigate obstacles to get there. It passed the test.
Last year, CSIRO conducted a “challenge” at Kingaroy, Queensland, that required the drone to locate the dummy of a missing bushwalker. Another pass.
Roberts says CSIRO is now experimenting with autonomous helicopters that fly into rainforests to spot invasive weeds. The drones can hover close to the canopy to take photos, something dangerous for a manned mission.
In these instances, conditions are too poor for communication and the drones are on their own, their controller waiting back at base for contact to resume. There is enough battery to power missions for up to an hour.