What It's Like To Fly A Military-Grade Drone

Ninox Robotics is an Australian start-up that operates drones around the country, capturing visual, infrared or geospatial data for businesses. While its drones are mostly autonomous, they still require a trained pilot to chart flight plans and follow government-mandated protocols.

We talked to Colin Smith, a former major in the Australian Defence Force, about what it's like operating a drone professionally, what training is needed, and what rules there are to follow while you're flying.

Image credit: Bluebird

Ninox Robotics and Smith fly the Bluebird Spylite Mini UAV drone, used by governments around the world, with a top speed of 120km/h and an operational ceiling of 36,000 feet. It can cover 100 square kilometres in its four-hour mission time, and can be fitted out with multiple camera payloads for different survey tasks.

We asked Colin Smith some questions about what it's like working for Ninox, and what it's like flying the Spylite.

Can you give some insight into your ADF experience, and how it compares to work at Ninox?

CS: My military experience spans more than 35 years, with a focus on target acquisition and surveillance. I've had extensive experience with [drone] optical systems including electro-optical sighting systems, image intensifying, infrared and thermal imaging (TI) sights, all of which operate in the 1.5-15 micron band of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These capabilities are all available within the civilian sector, and are found on our (Ninox) UAVs. Surveillance, surveying, mapping are all capabilities that can be achieved by civilian organisations — using military grade systems still in service with armies around the world today, although they do not have the latest, most-up-to-date technology as it is generally too expensive — and sometimes shrouded in secrecy.

Most military systems these days have a target designation capability (laser pointer or designator) which can light up (identify) the target, or guide laser-guided munitions onto the target. We (at Ninox) don't do that, though!

There is also military technology out there that prevents UAVs from having their data communication signals jammed, and the UAVs being lost or brought down. There is little requirement for this in the civilian domain and would probably be very hard to get hold of, if at all.

My recent experiences in the military has focused on the employment of such systems and advising senior Australian Defence Force officers on their use. This has helped me assist Ninox in business development, as I can assist as a liaison with prospective customers.

What level of training do you need as a pilot to operate a drone like the Spylite? Is it 100% hands on, or is there some autonomy?

CS: The training lasts for 4 weeks and is a mixture of aeronautical theory and practical application of skills including live flying.

The Bluebird Spylite is fully autonomous once the flight profiles have been loaded into the Bluebird Ground Control Station (BBGCS). During flight, it is possible to change the flight plan by commanding different flight modes and moving the waypoints in the BBGCS by dragging and dropping. Previous UAV experience is desirable, but not essential.

What regulations and protocols (government and private) are there for operating drones in problem spots like during fires?

CS: CASA regulations state "never fly a drone, model aircraft or multi-rotor near bushfires. While it might be tempting to record footage, you can pose a major safety risk to firefighting personnel in the air and on the ground". That is not to say it cannot be done — airspace management can be achieved through coordination of effort at the Emergency Control Centre to ensure that when firefighting aircraft or rescue aircraft are in the area, the UAVs would recover or move completely out of the area, so as not to pose a risk to the operation.

This wouldn't be too different to the way military target acquisition drones identify targets for ground attack aircraft to prosecute. This would have to be a single entity/organisation with representation at the ECC, though, and not every man and his dog ringing in to put a quadcopter in the air!

What are the limits of the drone that you're working with? Do they have different height/speed ceilings to military or consumer-grade tech?

CS: The Bluebird Spylite is a military grade platform, and is still in service with a number of militaries around the world. It is a proven system with enormous capability at relatively small cost. It has as standard an electro-optical (EO) camera combined with an infrared camera which can be toggled between during daylight, low light and night time for surveillance activities.

Alternatively, a photogrammetric payload can be fitted to conduct survey and mapping tasks that will allow the processing of 2D and 3D orthophotos which can be used for asset management and quantity volumetrics of stockpiles, and so on. The aircraft can fly for around four hours, travel as far as 50km (away from the controller), cover an area of up to 100 square kilometres and to an altitude of 36,000 feet. It has a top air speed of 120 km/h.

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