Drones soaring as they become society’s best weapon against disasters

Drones have changed the world with their versatility and are now Australia’s favourite mechanical friend as they fight bushfires, rescue stranded surfers, deliver vital medications and monitor shark sightings.

From their mundane initial use for fast food deliveries, drones have grown in size and stature to become a vital part of our lives and their future keeps expanding to keep pace with imaginative projects.

There are now more than 100,000 drones in Australia.

They have roles in projects as diverse as the protecting the environment, crocodile spotting, monitoring whale movements, exploring polar regions and the insides of volcanoes that would be too dangerous for humans to attempt.

They deliver vital drugs and other medications to isolated patients and every day seems to bring a new way to employ the usefulness of drones.

Jason Young, chief operating officer of the Little Ripper Group, told the big audience at Venture Café’s weekly Thursday forum that drones were already enlisted in the fight against bush fires that ravage Australia, causing billions of dollars in damage, turning dreams into charred wood and stone and often claiming lives.

“We work with a company in Victoria using drones to drop incendiary balls to start a fire and assist with backburning,” he said.

Problems with using drones more extensively at the moment in firefighting included the lack of a clear line of sight because of the smokes and flames.

“Drones flying through the smoke …if there’s a helicopter there… could kill people,” he said

“At the moment there are some players in it using military grade drone aircraft.”

“For firefighters to be actively using drones I think is coming very, very fast.”

“We see firefighting as a huge opportunity for drones globally.”

Venture Café’s free Thursday forums and product demonstrations between 3pm and 8pm have become one of Sydney’s innovation and entrepreneurial hotspots for insightful, topical and collaborative get togethers of emerging talents.

A changing program of topics, including Q and A’s with the speakers, in an intimate setting at 58 Waterloo Rd Macquarie Park, gives entrepreneurs and aspirants a chance to exchange ideas and discuss their projects with like-minded people.

As well as Jason Young, the Drones are Good program featured:

  • Dr Vanessa Pirotta marine predator research group Macquarie university
  • Iain Gordon Senior communications and Bod Manager ORIX Australia
  • Ramy Ibrahim, head of co-creation and Innovation at Fujitsu
  • Nick Smith, director of Drones for Hire

Dr Pirotta to the audience that drones had made monitoring whales much easier and would add to research into ways to protect them.

“Collecting data from large animals can be notoriously dangerous,” she told Venture Café patrons.

“You’re working with an animal that can be 17 metres long and weight 80,000 kilograms.

“So using a small drone to fly over them and collect a biological sample without having to hurt them is much safer.

“In the past to collect this information we’ve had to wait for  whales to strand on a beach in which case their health is compromised.

“Drones are making the accessibility of these huge animals in the remote easier.”

Jason Young told of the cost effectiveness of drones and the benefits using them can bring to incapacitated people.

“People in wheelchairs are among our best pilots,” he said

“We have situations where someone in a wheelchair can save someone’s life using a drone.

“That is quite empowering for that person.

“Becoming a pilot for a rescue helicopter is 20 years training and hundreds of thousands of dollars in training

“Where as you can get a young person out of high school at say 17-years-of-age and give them a couple of weeks of intensive training and they can be a rescue drone pilot.”

He said the barriers about getting drones into action, including the low cost, and the speed that potential pilots could be trained, were appealing.

New exploratory themes about using drones would include expanding its role in rescues.

“If someone is standing on a beach and looking between the flags it might look ok,” Mr Young said

“But a lot of drownings and almost drownings happen outside the flags.

“So how do we extend the reach of a rescuer ? “How do we take the rescuer out of the rescue? “That’s our focus.”

Drone use continues to expand at breakneck pace in areas as varied as the environment, artic exploration as well as sentries waiting to be called into action.

Little Ripper offers devices to rescue people in the water, using a pod that automatically inflates in water and supports 3-4 people, and on land and in snow.

Speakers at the Venture Café forum spoke of drones being used to deliver medicines and vaccines to mining sites and other isolated areas without endangering human lives.

“Drones can also give us a lot of information about our environment,” Dr Pirotta said

“For example in artic areas they can stitch together images and see how far the ice it has retreated and how far it has extended.

“We’re seeing ice moving in different ways and retracing a lot so over time. So we can set drones to stitch images from this selected group, bring them back, and download images over consecutive years.

“We can also send drones into areas that are inaccessible like volcanoes if the atmosphere is not too hot and the drones don’t melt. Drones can take images for us when it is too dangerous to send humans.”

Despite the giant strides continuing to be made in developing and utilising drones for the good of society ,there are problems experts say that need to be resolved.

Speakers mentioned funding for further development as a problem as well as red tape about using drones.

“We’re limited by funding. That’s the main thing for us,” said professor Pirotta.

“We have gone from (collecting data on) whales to dolphins but there’s a whole host of information we want to collect

She said data collecting had made great progress in a short time.

“When we started our whale research back in 2016 we talked about using drones around whales and dolphins but people didn’t really know much about it.

“So when we applied for scientific permits to fly around animals in a marine environment, NSW national parks didn’t really know what kind of licence to issue us.

“So they were eagerly watching our research to see what the results were so they could issue a permit for us to fly within five metres of a whale.

“Our research showed that the whales either knew the drone was there and had no interest in it or had no idea it was there.”

Jason Young also had concerns about funding and bureaucratically imposed limitations.

“We have a vision of having a drone go up and down and straight out to sea,” he said.

“But if we go to a rescue say 50 nautical miles out to sea we have to send two helicopters, whereas we’re thinking of just sending a drone and a helicopter.

“There are huge opportunities for our business from that sort of thing.

“It can be done by anyone in this country I believe. It’s just a matter of who’s going to do it first.”

Ensuring drones fly only in a line-of-sight formation also rankles. Users want drones to have a more flexible flight path when needed but they also appreciate the problems that would cause without strict guidelines.

“For us on the beach, we can see the drone when it goes overhead,” Mr Young said.

“But there are hang gliders and people in small wing helicopters.

“Some come over the headland at 400ft when they’re meant to be at 500ft.

“You can’t see what could be running into your drone.

“That’s why ours are big and yellow so we can see a bit further than most people.”

Ramy Ibrahim concurred about line of sight regulations.

“If we come to a mountain we still have to maintain line of sight. So we have to work around maintaining line of sight but that might mean flying over private property.

“And we have to have permission to fly over private property.”

As drones continue to evolve no problem seems insurmountable. They can fly over massive traffic jams and relay images to help controllers control the problems from kilometres away.

Problems of discrimination against some businesses were also raised.

If a major fast food chain or example is given the right to uses drones for deliveries can a neighbouring privately owned fast food outlet be refused?

Throw in deliveries from retail shops, on line purchases, and drug deliveries from pharmacies and the  skies will be filled with drones leading to disputes over air space.

Meanwhile one aspect of drone evolution continues to elusive.For some reason, designing a drone capable of landing on a boat has yet to emerge.