What part will drones play in Australian society in the years to come?
As part of Vivid Sydney, Intel's 'Drones For Good' panel invited one of the 'Innovation Partners' behind Australia Post's drone trial Dirk Van Lammeren; Aussie company Ninox Robotics' managing director Marcus Ehrlich, and even Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop to weigh in on the potential of drone technology in Australia.
You'd be surprised to hear how many applications drones are already being used for -- or at least trialed with -- in Australia. According to Ninox Robotics' Marcus Ehrlich, Australia is the perfect place for it. We have a large land mass with scattered settlements, a wealthy population with high technological uptake, and a regulator that understands the industry. "Drones will be a real part of raising productivity in Australia," he predicts, though he says he can't say what form it might take.
Julie Bishop's introduction brought up a number of areas where drones are already seeing use in Australia -- whether it was by farmers monitoring or crop-dusting remote and hard-to-reach areas of their properties, using drones to easily chart landscapes from above, or even drones that are mounted with cameras to shoot films at all levels of production. The first instance of this technology was actually developed by an Australian company for the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean -- and those same drone cameras are still used by Disney for shoots all over the world.
Perhaps surprisingly, drones are being used even in Bishop's own portfolio of Foreign Affairs. The Firetail is a low-cost UAV system that was named one of the winners of the Department of Foreign Affairs' Pacific Humanitarian Challenge. While drones aren't immediately what comes to mind as a foreign aid or humanitarian technology (because drones are more commonly associated with warfare in most cases) the impact of the Firetail in countries hit by natural disasters could save numerous lives thanks to early reporting and providing first responders with accurate, recent data.
Drones have been increasingly used for disaster response and search and rescue in the last few years. After the Fukushima disaster, for example, drones were used to measure radiation in certain areas, and even to inspect the condition of the reactors themselves where it would have been too dangerous for people to go. More than ten years ago, UAVs were used for search and rescue in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, finding survivors where they had taken refuge on roofs and other high points. These drones saved an estimated 5000 lives just in New Orleans -- and that success inspired investment over here in Australia.
The person who had designed the drones used in the rescue effort after Hurricane Katrina ended up moving to Australia, catching the interest of an Australian businessman with a lifelong interest in surf lifesaving, Kevin Weldon. An integral figure in the formation of the International Life Saving Federation, Weldon knows the value of innovation in lifesaving, with his efforts helping to bring then-new technology like the 'rubber ducky' inflatable rescue boats to Australia.
After being inspired by the technology used for Katrina's rescue effort, Weldon was determined to bring that technology down under. The result was the 'Little Ripper Lifesaver', a drone that looks like a scaled down version of a regular rescue helicopter. The Little Ripper has been used in shark-spotting trials along Australia's beaches, though Weldon sees a number of other uses for the mini helicopter. As an aside, he mentioned that he "hates the word drone," hoping -- probably in vain -- that his name 'little ripper' will catch on as a generic term instead.
Drones For Delivery
Another of Australia's long-standing institutions is also looking into using drone technology -- Australia Post. The company, according to innovation partner Dirk van Lammeren, has been looking into the question of delivering to rural areas, asking how they can improve their service and get packages to rural communities even faster. The obvious answer, of course, is drones.
In fact, Australia Post has gone further than thinking about it, saying that it'll be trialing drone services in rural areas in the next 6 to 12 months. "These customers currently just get a note in their postbox, and have to go pick up their parcel from the post office." The proposed drone service would instead deliver a package from a truck straight to the front door.
"Packages from online shopping make up 70 per cent of the parcels delivered by Australia Post," he says -- and this is what they are planning to cater for. The sending and receiving of letters is dropping dramatically, while the opposite is happening with parcels, especially from online stores.
Not only this, but the volume of packages that need to be sent grows exponentially around Christmas, with around 53 per cent of AusPost customers buying something online last Christmas. Is this another problem that could be solved by drones? Australia Post is certainly looking into that possibility, and trying to create a solution that is designed for online shopping habits that are only going to increase.
Drones As A Service
Australian tech startup Ninox Robotics is one of the companies that is banking on the success of drone technology -- as the ones who provide it for industry uses of all sorts. In fact, they say that they currently service a huge range of industries -- from conservation to mining, as strange as that sounds.
Both of these uses involve a military-grade drone with thermal cameras -- this kind of technology can be used to map populations of invasive pest species in remote areas, or in the case of mining to monitor blast clearance, making sure no one is too close to the blast sites.
These drones can also fly at high altitudes, covering huge areas in short amounts of time. In Australia's rural environments where access is limited, these drones are able to cover a lot of ground to make up for limited manpower.
Although these military-grade drones are being repurposed, the thought of drones used for spying and even killing is always keen in the public perception of this technology. While Intel accepts that these dangers exist, panel moderator David Hoffman of Intel believes that the technology can be designed to make up for its own inherent dangers.
"How can technology mitigate these dangers?" he asked, when the question was posed to the panel during the Q&A session. He believes it's a matter of putting controls in place that can make sure this technology isn't able to be used in negative ways -- using technology to protect ourselves against its own inherent risks. "Compared to horses, cars were seen as incredibly dangerous," he pointed out. In fact, compared to cars, the density of UAVs is expected to be far lower, even in future predictions.
While these are practical concerns, Intel is also trying to counter drones' negative public perception in a far more whimsical manner -- by creating art with them. This is where Intel's Drone 100 came from: a choreographed light show featuring 100 drones dancing in the sky. It played live at Vivid Sydney, and we caught the first performance live:
How many of these applications will continue to use drones in the long term is only for time to tell, however. Only one thing is for certain, as Julie Bishop says: "The age of the drone has well and truly begun."