Australasia Rescue

Exploring drone use in disasters


By Rhiannon Elston

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

They’re the new eyes in the sky, taking human vision further than ever before.

Remotely piloted aircraft, also known as drones, have become more affordable for hundreds of Australians, and they’re growing in popularity.

Search and rescue operations could be among the areas to benefit from the new technology.

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When fires raged across parts of New South Wales last month, dramatic images of the devastation were captured by hobby drone operators flying unpiloted aircraft with cameras attached.

Then the Civil Aviation Safety Authority stepped in: to warn unlicensed drone operators against flying without permission or face an $8,000 fine.

Even so, approved drones could be part of the fire-fighting solution.

At the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation in Brisbane, Rowland Marshall is among those working to develop responsive, unmanned aircraft…for use in disaster prevention and response.

“Unmanned aero-vehicles (UAV) greatly reduce the risk to pilots and also to people on the ground by providing more information. And with regards to Project Rescue, what we’re trying to do is make the usage of those aircraft safer so we can use them in more environments, in more areas and more locations.”

He sees a future where drones take over the toughest tasks for humans, in the most challenging environments.

“You’ll be delivering packages or completely monitoring or fighting fires autonomously. Basically doing anything that’s dull, dirty or dangerous.”

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says they’re already looking at ways to use the technology.

“As a matter of fact, in recent years, we’ve partnered at a national level, we have a collaboration through the National Aerial Fire Fighting Centre, and one of the things we are looking at are UAVs and drones, and what application there would be in fire management, and more broadly in emergency management.”

But he says there’s more work to be done in the area of safety.

“What we do need to work out is airspace issues, how do we integrate those into existing air operations, what are the principal uses that we would have? And at this stage it would appear to be around intelligence-gathering, observation, reconnaissance, those sorts of things.”

Peter Gibson of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority says commercial and hobby drone operators alike need to be aware of the rules that surround them.

“These are machines that have a bit of weight behind them, they’ve got spinning blades which are relatively sharp, they can cause injury, they could even cause death. Certainly they could cause damage to another aircraft. So you’ve just got to use your common sense.”

There are 60 licensed commercial drone operators in Australia, a figure that is growing all the time.

We won’t be seeing them in cities any time soon.

They’re more likely to be used in remote and rural areas.

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