Finding Outback Joe

UAVs in Australia

UAVs are in the news. Often called ‘drones’, these are unmanned aerial vehicles of a wide variety of specifications, and their deployment in military operations is proving highly controversial…

Objections raised range from a lack of accountability (with veiled suggestions that these remote-guided planes could bomb civilians without being caught) to an invasion of privacy, bizarrely equated with the intrusion of Google Maps.

However, drones, or UAVs, are here to stay, and the array of uses for them grows by the day – especially in Australia, which has climatic and topological reasons for taking more interest in their development than most countries. In agriculture, for example, they are already in use to assess the health of crops and productivity of arable land, spray crops in remote areas, and even round up livestock. The CSIRO’s scientists have been using remote control drones to help Victoria’s fire authorities better understand the behaviour of grassfires.

Announcing an order for (manned) Poseidon P8 surveillance aircraft recently, Prime Minister Abbott reminded us that “our economic zone alone is four per cent of the Earth’s oceans. Our search and rescue zone is some 11 per cent of the Earth’s oceans. It is an enormous part of the Earth that we are required to supervise, and – if necessary – control.” Discussions are advanced on acquisition of UAVs (sometimes called UAS – ‘systems’) for border control and asylum-seeker monitoring purposes, which will only serve to heighten the often ill-informed debate on the overall use of unmanned aircraft.

Those UAVs to be bought for the RAAF will probably come from Boeing of the US. Looking more like a child’s radio-controlled toy than a 747 or B-52, the Scan Eagle has been in service for nine years now, though has been considerably modified during that time as the science of UAVs evolves. Scan Eagle is built by Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, which is based in Washington but has one other office: in Queensland, from whence it pursues markets throughout Asia-Pacific.

ScanEagle can be used without a conventional airfield or runway, as it can be launched with a pneumatic launcher and recovered using the “Skyhook” retrieval system, which uses a hook on the end of the wingtip to catch a rope hanging from a pole 9 to 15 metres high. The aircraft, which will set you back around $5 million (significantly cheaper than a manned plane), has a wingspan of 3.1 metres, an MTOW of 22 kilograms, a ceiling of around 19,500 feet, and can cruise at 50-60 knots for 24 hours at a time. This specification is not untypical of the current generation of UAVs for observation purposes, although other types are now available with payloads of up to around 100 kilograms, giving rise to speculation about the possible use of UAVs for postal deliveries of parcels to rural and remote locations, which might prove more cost-effective than the traditional delivery by ute.

In this market, Australia is again doing what it does best – adding value to the product cycle. Incidentally, this country is not new to UAV technology; a partnership was set up in 2001 as part of a $20 million government-to-government cost-sharing arrangement with the US to maximise mutual technology development of the Global Hawk and interoperability between the countries’ unique reconnaissance efforts. The goal of the programme was “to demonstrate worldwide allied deployment capabilities of the Air Force’s High-Altitude Endurance UAV programme.” Several of Australia’s most renowned higher education institutions are engaged in top-level research with imminent commercial applications, notably QUT, which in February announced it had made what is “believed to be a world-first breakthrough for small Unmanned Aircraft (UA), developing an on board system that has enabled a UA to detect another aircraft using vision while in flight.”

During the flight, the onboard system provided real time warnings back to the ground control station, resulting in a successful manual collision avoidance manoeuvre – a critical point for allowing UAs to fly in commercial airspace. The flight trial was carried out in unsegregated, class G airspace. The research, carried out by QUT’s Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA) in conjunction with Boeing and Insitu Pacific, was successfully proven in recent trials at an airfield northwest of Brisbane.

Project ResQu, a two-year project funded by the Queensland Government, QUT, CSIRO, [Boeing] and Insitu Pacific, “aims to fast-track the development of smart technologies that will enable unmanned aircrafts to fly safely in the civil airspace,” according to ARCAA director Duncan Campbell. “Ultimately, this will allow UAVs to provide public services such as assistance in disaster management and recovery, as well as in environmental, biosecurity and resource management.” Professor Campbell said the breakthrough was extremely significant and meant Project ResQu was well on track to deliver technological advancements and to make regulatory recommendations to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) by the middle of this year.

Insitu is not alone, although some of the local entrants in the UAV game are of considerably smaller scale. Another Queensland company is V-TOL Aerospace, which has been undertaking aerial robotic research and development activities on a wide range of platforms for the past seven years. Numerous UAS and cameras have been tested, including the Mini Warrigal (a 1 metre wingspan platform with aerial surveillance capabilities), and the V-TOL Arrow (a 5 metre helicopter with a 100kg payload capability). The Arrow “will have an endurance capability of up to 8 hours and can deploy devices, fly totally autonomously, and can carry a large range of camera systems,” says the company.

Meanwhile, Project Vulcan has been carrying out test flights with the fire authorities in New South Wales. The project’s director, Warren Purnell, told ABC in February the future is bright, once the ‘image’ of UAVs stabilises. “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 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.”

Think you can do better yourself? Well, the UAV Outback Challenge is scheduled to take place in September. Based on an airfield at Kingaroy, northwest of Brisbane, the competing teams will use their home-built unmanned aerial vehicles to seek a dummy, dressed as a bushwalker and positioned by the organisers in a place and position typical of a bushwalker in distress. Once Outback Joe, as this ‘victim’ is known, has been located, the aircraft must safely deliver a life saving drink to him (minimum of 500ml). More than 40 pages of rules for the event detail how a team can win the challenge (and a $50,000 prize), but it goes without saying that no actual people are to be allowed anywhere near the ‘rescue’.

Unmanned ground systems (driverless trucks) are already in use in a number of hazardous locations, while some more adventurous manufacturers are putting their toe in the water with unmanned marine systems. These can save lives as well as explore depths dangerous to humans; they also underline the direction technology is taking: reducing the risk for ‘real’ pilots and going boldly where no plane has been able to fly before.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 6:44 AM AEDT