Ian Warden

A Canberra Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) team has just used its clever drone to save the life of a tourist, Joe, lost in the God-forsaken wastes of Queensland. The drone not only detected him, but dropped the dehydrated soul a life-saving bottle of water.

From quite far away the searching Canberrans manoeuvred  their drone with such virtuosity that it dropped the bottle within 2.6 metres, crawling distance, of a prone and enfeebled Joe (see our picture) who couldn’t possibly have got up and walked to it.

The Canberrans have not had a word of thanks from Joe, but that’s because he is only a life-sized effigy of a man (rather like a scarecrow or a Guy Fawkes dummy) used in last Friday’s prestigious, international UAV Outback Challenge near Kingaroy. The winning Canberrans (whose feats would be all over this newspaper if they were a team of footballers or part of Team Kyrgios, rather than a team of cerebral boffins) triumphed over a field of 16 teams (including teams from the USA, France, Poland, Colombia, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Singapore) and won a first prize of $50,000.

The Challenge is an elite tournament. There had been 116 teams of aspirants keen to come to Kingaroy for the 2014 event, but over  1½ years they were whittled down to  the top 16.

Team-member Stephen Dade (he’s a satellite engineer) was still feeling and sounding buoyant about the victory as he explained that the Australian competition, one of very few such tournaments in the world, encourages the development of UAV’s for civilian search and rescue purposes.

He agrees that “drones and UAVs have a bad rap” because  the weapons versions of them are always in the news when they are killing people. And yet drones and UAVs have, he’s sure, great search and rescue potentials.

He explains that competition organisers went out and re-positioned lost Joe (of course not saying exactly where they’d put him) in a different place for each team’s turn. Competitors and their contraptions were gathered at Kingaroy’s Joh Bjelke-Petersen airport and Joe, gasping and praying, was always somewhere about four kilometres from the airport. He was plonked down again and again in search-area spaces (the competitors were told where they were) measuring 2.5 kilometres by 1.5 kilometres.

Teams in the competition accumulated points for a range of achievements  in their missions. So for example it mattered

enormously that the Canberra team’s drone (it is an off-the-shelf but much-modified-by-boffins model aeroplane weighing 14 kilograms and with a 2.6 metre wingspan) dropped the regulation 500 millilitre water bottle so close to the parched, windblown sufferer. Between  a third and half of the available points hung on this and the Canberrans’ spot-on 2.6 metres was the closest bottle-drop in the history of the competition. On Friday, the next nearest bottle fell 22 metres from Joe, and of course, him being as you can see so enfeebled, was quite out of his despairing reach. This was the first year in which any team had ever dropped a bottle within 100 metres of Joe.

The Canberra drone’s successful, utterly automated take-off and landing (all managed by a computer) was another points-gatherer. This is important  because drones are used in places where people can’t go, and so an autonomous, self-sufficient drone is a joy.

Of course it was also essential to the Canberra team’s success that their dashing red and white drone didn’t crash. Several of the other drones, including some of the international visitors, did crash while up searching for Joe. How Joe must have despaired, seeing his potential discoverers fall out of the sky!

The teams successfully negotiated the “tricky” take off, and Dade is sure these accidents then happened  because the wilderness near Kingaroy is very windy and some drones and their manipulators couldn’t cope. “They got blown about.”

But Dade and some of the other Canberrans had been to Kingaroy for the 2012 competition, had noticed the spot’s gustiness, and had artfully taken  it into account. And so the buffeted Canberra drone, even though it was up in the air for 45 minutes and went back and forth for about 70 kilometres of searching, survived the buffeting and came home to Kingaroy airport to make a perfect, autonomous landing.

How heart-breaking it must have been, not only for the despairing Joe but especially for team members to have their drones crash! The drones at Kingaroy were all, Dade testifies, “very complex systems” representing huge investments of time and ingenuity and hope by the respective teams. They were flying treasures.

The Canberra team of 10 (two were unable to go to Kingaroy and so are not in our picture) is made up people with oodles of expertise. When we put it to Dade that perhaps Canberrans (citizens of a Clever City) should be as proud of  his team as of a successful Canberra footie team he was too modest to go that far, but did muse that, “Yes, it’s definitely proof that there’s a lot of high-tech development and research going on here”.


By Press