One of Australia’s favourite new high-tech toys could have shaved hours off the emergency response to Tropical Cyclone Marcia, a Brisbane drone expert says.
His comments come as the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services looks to start using the unmanned aircraft to respond to emergencies by the end of the year.
Drone researcher Professor Duncan Campbell said the exciting new technology, versions of which were a popular Christmas gift, could have allowed authorities to get eyes in the sky much earlier to get a snapshot of the damage.
“(After a cyclone) there’s going to be a period of time where there’s a bit of uncertainty, are there people in trouble, are there assets and infrastructure which is damaged and what do we have to do to get them back online?” he said.
“Until the winds really die down it’s difficult to get manned crews in there. The ability to fly in unmanned craft, with cameras, with vision and try and get an assessment of people who may be in trouble (is invaluable).
“That way manned crews could come in and better target their response.”
Professor Campbell didn’t suggest drones could be flying around mid-storm but said they could be up “in the order of hours” earlier than manned crews.
Queensland fire fighters used drones in limited urban situations during a six-month trial last year.
Assistant Commissioner John Watson said the service was working to develop a list of private contractors to be used in emergencies.
“We haven’t signed any agreements at this stage or any contracts however we’re expecting this year that will be part of the suite of tools that are available to us,” he said.
“They won’t be rolled out for every event but where we have a special need to access information we would certainly look at using the drones.”
But the special operations and search and rescue specialist said current generation drones available to the fire service would be unlikely to be able to fly earlier than manned aircraft because of weather limitations.
He said the real benefits would come in safety and flexibility, initially focusing on responses to emergencies such as fires and chemical spills but eventually rolling out to situations more similar to the clean-up after Marcia.
“We may be able to use them to fly down a street where there’s power lines down or trees blocking roadways, which limit our access,” he said.
“It would actually save us putting emergency services people into aircraft.
“It’s all about risk. Depending on cost and how the contractors come in would then govern (what we do, but) we may be able to put more of these in an area than say, crewed aircraft.”
Professor Campbell’s Queensland University of Technology-based Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA) recently became the first research facility in Australia to gain Civil Aviation Safety Authority certification to fly drones, known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the industry.
“That’s a huge step for us, it gives us the ability as a research centre to go out and fly UAVs and continue our research and development,” he said.
Professor Campbell said he hoped the work he and other researchers were doing to help make drones safer would make them even more useful in emergencies in the future.
As regulations stand, businesses need multiple operators to fly a single drone, partly because of safety concerns regarding avoiding other aircraft.
But researchers are working at breakneck pace to add more automation into drone designs.
Just this week ARCAA researchers successfully tested an emergency landing system for UAVs under 20kg, believed to be a world-first development.
Previously, the Project ResQu team had tested and proved what was believed to be the world’s first on-board vision system to let a small UAV detect and avoid another aircraft while in flight.
Professor Campbell hopes developments like these are leading towards a future where instead of three or four people controlling one drone, one pilot could operate several drones at once.
For now, that dream is a fair way off.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority is in the middle of a review into commercial drone use, due to be completed in the first half of this year.
As it stands, recreational drone users must keep more than 30m away from people, avoid flying over large groups and keep their aircraft within line of sight, along with several other regulations.
Fifteen users have been fined for contravening these rules in the past 18 months, mostly for flying too close to people.
But restrictions on commercial operators are much stricter, requiring the operator to be a licensed pilot with extra training for drone operation.
The CASA review is likely to remove the need for a commercial license for craft weighing less than 2kg along with some other changes.
A longer term review into both commercial and recreational use is likely to finish next year but doesn’t have a fixed timeframe.