A new eye in the sky for bushfire fighters has had several dozen test flights on the New South Wales south coast.
The remote controlled flying drone is relatively cheap, small enough to fit in a suitcase, and can be airborne within seconds.
In the test flights it was used to spot smoke plumes and see by how much fires had spread.
Brendan Trembath prepared this report.
(Sound of drone flying)
BRENDAN TREMBATH: A remote controlled fire spotter called Vulcan takes off for a test flight.
Warren Purnell has plotted its course on his laptop.
WARREN PURNELL: It kind of looks like a crab that has six arms, six motors and six propellers on the end of each of the arms.
It has a flight range of approximately a six kilometre radius, if necessary.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Unmanned aerial vehicles could be used in situations where it’s too risky to deploy planes and helicopters.
WARREN PURNELL: We’re not about flying through walls of fire by any means, but the equipment we’re flying, if necessary, could be deemed to be expendable if the surveillance we need to do warrants it.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Warren Purnell established Project Vulcan Unmanned Aerial Systems and he’s done a series of demonstrations for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
WARREN PURNELL: It sort of gives you that bird’s eye view that obviously you can attain in a full size helicopter or aircraft, but just having the resource available, pretty much on-call any time massively improves the situational awareness of, say, the divisional commander who’s on the fire ground directing firefighters.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: He compares it to a portable fire tower.
WARREN PURNELL: We’re able to identify water sources, there’s smoke plume analysis which gives them an idea of how intense the fire is as well as say property assets that need protecting, as well as just generally keeping an eye on the ground crews that are fighting the fire just to ensure their safety.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: He hopes other emergency service organizations make use of them too.
WARREN PURNELL: The systems we’re developing, whilst specifically at this stage are for bushfire fighting, I believe can be quite easily adapted.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: One of the main issues for proponents of unmanned flights is safety.
Warren Purnell is limited where he can fly and how high.
WARREN PURNELL: I’m governed by the rules of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, so at this stage, when the UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicle) at the fire ground, we are actually under the control of the divisional commander or the operations officer from the RFS and they actually determine when it is safe to fly because they’re in contact with their aviation division.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has warned that people conducting flights over fire affected areas without permission risk fines.
There were two incidents in Lithgow and the Blue Mountains in October.
The authority says flying a remotely piloted aircraft in the same airspace as helicopters and planes fighting fires “creates a real risk of a mid-air collision”.
Warren Purnell agrees.
WARREN PURNELL: While the technology has a massive amount of capability, we’re finding that the uptake of UAVs is a little slower, mainly because we have to address concerns such as safety and the sharing of the airspace under CASA et cetera.
So look, it will be adopted, I’m fairly certain of that. There’s a lot of concepts out there at the moment. Some of them have merit, others not so much. I’m sort of about under-promising and over-delivering.
The public’s perception probably needs to change a little, and I think once the professional side of the industry come to the fore, then the public will see what we’re really about.
MARK COLVIN: Warren Purnell from Project Vulcan ending that report by Brendan Trembath.