By Courtney Wilson
World-first research by Queensland scientists could enable unmanned aircraft or drones to be used in emergency response efforts in natural disasters.
Scientists at the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA) have successfully staged a fully-automated emergency landing of a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone.
ARCAA director Professor Duncan Campbell said it was the first step towards more drones being allowed to fly in the crowded skies above populated areas.
“With that data the regulator can gain confidence that we can fly in the skies and share with manned aircraft,” he said.
“We can indeed safely land if we need to do that, so the whole idea is that we can progressively start flying over more populous areas than we can right now.”
Professor Campbell said regulatory changes could allow drones to become more commercially viable.
“Imagine checking the waterholes or checking the condition of livestock on large cattle properties,” he said.
“Being able to fly quite a long distance and therefore reduce the human labour intensity of some of these operations.”
Professor Campbell helped to lead Project ResQu, a two-year research project. One focus was on allowing unmanned aircraft to be used in first-response efforts after natural disasters.
“If we could use unmanned aircraft as multiple eyes in the sky and detect people that are in trouble – that way the manned assets can come in and target their response,” he said.
Need increases for specialist drone training and regulation
Improvements in technology had led to a boom in the drone business, with more than 150 commercial operators now working in Australia.
It also created a need for specialist training and licensing.
Mark Xavier runs V-Tol Aerospace, a company offering courses to certify people to operate unmanned aircraft.
“We were the first country in the world to create regulations which could be used for the operation of unmanned aircraft in the commercial space and so therefore there was a need to develop things such as this course,” he said.
“Technology is starting to emerge that can be very useful in our core industries — especially mining, energy, environment, forestry, education, government services and anywhere were geospatial information is useful.”
Other countries are now looking to Australia as they also seek to regulate the growing industry.
George Tudreu, from the Fijian Civil Aviation Authority, recently took part in an unmanned aircraft training course in Queensland.
“There are a lot of people bringing in remote helicopters [to Fiji] and also wanting to do a bit of UAV flying,” he said.
“A lot of the tourists, the hotel operators they tend to use this technology for advertising.
“The movie industry is coming into Fiji — they’re using this technology.
“We recently had a PGA tournament last month – they brought in this technology.
“We need to police it, which is the reason we’re here – we need to know about it.”
Despite rapid growth in the drone industry, Professor Campbell said there was still a way to go before unmanned aircraft became a common sight in the skies.
“In three to five years, then we might see these aircraft operating over more populated areas,” he said.
“But will we see them operating routinely over the city of Brisbane in five years time? I don’t think so.
“I think that time’s still a little further off.”