KARIN BARSCHOW FROM Top Snap takes a look at the potential of drone technology after her ‘geek week’ at the Connect Show in Melbourne earlier this year.
UAV, UAS, RPA, RPAS, UACS, drones – confused? So was I! Let’s just call them all drones for the sake of simplicity, although the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s (CASA) preferred term is RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft). The simple drone may look like an enthusiast’s plaything, but it is actually classed as an aircraft.
I volunteered to do the research as I love the aviation industry and spent a considerable amount of time inhaling nav gas at the local heliport some years back. Plus it gave me the chance of a few days in my home town of Melbourne with family and friends, shopping and wandering through golden, tree-lined streets in the sunshine.
What I thought would be a fun-filled week turned into an eye-opening, empowering time visiting Connect Show 2015, a large annual trade show organised in partnership with the Victorian Government. The UAV Aircraft Summit fitted perfectly into this category, showcasing the humble drone and its emerging use in the commercial sectors – not to mention the potential for the real estate industry.
The summit was well attended but, as I suspected, I was the only ‘girl geek’. The agenda included speakers from CASA , MIT Department of Aeronautics, project leaders from Google[x], Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Melbourne Water, RMIT Engineering Department, CSRIO, Alaska Centre for Unmanned Aircraft Systems and company representatives from Matternet, URS Engineering and ETH Mapping.
One particular speaker of interest was from Google[x], a project think-tank run by Google that is dedicated to major technology advancements focusing on three criteria: Significant problem, radical solution, breaking technology.
These projects are called ‘moon walks’ by the Google[x] team; drone-based delivery systems are just one of the moon walks they are currently working on.
Another company making headway into the idea of transportation using drone technology is the Florida-based start-up Matternet, who are already servicing customers with drone deliveries using a clever mobile phone app. They have just signed a strategic alliance with Swiss Post and Swiss Cargo to start delivering packaging in Switzerland. In fact, Central Europe is poised to lead with the implementation of delivery drones as there are few overhead power cables, a huge safety theme when working with drones.
Not only is Australia leading with the innovative use of these cost-effective tools, but we are well advanced in regulatory affairs. CASA hope to have overhauled regulations in place by mid-2015, using a few manageable processes to simplify this development.
Operators will either need to sit the Private Pilot Licence theory test and complete training with the RPA manufacturer, or attend a CASA-certified training course, which will cover both of the above stages.
All operators must have a CASA-issued Controller’s Certificate and all organisations using drones must have an Unmanned Operator’s Certificate UOC. Listed are a few of the compliance points, which must be remembered when flying commercially or privately.
- Drones are not to fly closer than 30 metres from other people or property, other than on your private property, and must not be flown over crowds of people, beaches or sporting events.
- Drones can only be operated in daylight where operators can see them; that is, in visual line of sight of the operator and only in good weather.
- Drones should be kept more than five kilometres from any type of airport or landing site, including those at hospitals or police stations. Operators need to be aware of where these airports and landing sites are located.
- Drones must be flown at heights below 121 metres.
In the real estate industry it is common knowledge that some agents are flying substandard and unregistered drones to do their own photo and video work, despite not being Operator Certified or insured. CASA is cracking down in this area, so beware: fines range from $850 to $8,500 for non-compliance. CASA, Air Services Australia and the Department of Defence all have an integral role in controlling Australian airspace. Not only is safety a priority, with a rapid increase of commercially operated drones in use; there have already been some privacy issues.
The right to privacy is a controversial topic. What could happen if those with a criminal agenda use drones? Privacy law is not governed by CASA but by the Australian Privacy Commission, who take all complaints seriously. Probably the best advice given by all speakers was to advise neighbours if you are planning a flight nearby.
What this translates to is that real estate agents should use only CASA-certified commercial drone operators. Currently there are 220 already certified with CASA and listed on their website, with another 150 operators being processed. There is no shortage of good, qualified drone operators in Australia.
As mentioned, Australia is way ahead in regulatory affairs and there are many industry sectors already using drones on a daily basis, aside from the real estate industry. In fact, a lot of wedding photographers are catching on and using drones to differentiate their services by using exciting visual effects. Others include law enforcement and emergency services, engineering firms, utility companies, scientific research, health organisations, agricultural firms and farmers for stock scanning, ecologists, mapping and topography surveyors, logistic companies, mining firms and of course Defence.
- The Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade performs HAZMAT investigations with drones mounted with gas sensors, collecting dangerous gases before sending in crews.
- Most major infrastructure suppliers are using drones for surveying dangerous tasks like high-voltage inspections or monitoring methane levels at sewerage plants.
- The Coast Guard uses drones to identify illegal fishing in our waters.
- Ecologists use drones to survey rare species in remote areas, collect hours of data in temperatures that no human can comfortable sustain for long periods of time, or monitor ecological disasters such as oil spill spreads in vast oceans.
- Across the world one billion people don’t have access to reliable roads. The World Health Organisation recently diagnosed blood samples and then sent medicine from 30 central hospitals to 180 remote clinics in Bhutan after a rare malaria outbreak. These trips, which previously would have taken five hours by road, took 55 minutes each with the aid of a drone.
- Governments are using drones to safely detect land mines without the use of animals. It is estimated there are still 120,000 active land mines in Bosnia-Herzegovina from the civil war of the 1990s.
- As mentioned previously, delivery of parcels is fast becoming a reality using drones. With 75 per cent of parcels shipped weighing under one kg, deliveries are already taking place in the US and Central Europe with DHL, Amazon and Google grappling for position. The obvious advantages are a saving in cost and time, not to mention the reduction in our carbon footprint.
Indisputably the future of drones is bright. Fedex has an application pending with the US-based FAA for an unmanned 747 for cargo operation. This could conceivably lead to routine unmanned commercial cargo flights one day.
AND THE WINNER IS…
There is now an awards ceremony dedicated to drones. The UAE-hosted Drones for Good Awards, with a first prize of US$1m, was won in 2014 by a Swiss company called Flyability, who developed the world’s first collision-resistant drone for search and rescue.
It is a very small, lightweight drone called GimBall, which has the unique capability of being able to collide into obstacles without losing its stability and of being safe to fly in contact with humans. It has the unusual ability to squeeze into tight indoor spaces and search for potential disaster victims. It can even roll along the ground or ceiling. The prize money will help these innovators bring about more and exciting products and uses for drones than we ever thought possible.
This sector has emerged as the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry this decade. Globally, civilian drones are set to become big business, and in Australia we are at the forefront of this exciting new technology.