Remote vessels are familiar in recreation and detection, but their potential for positive impact is limited only by imagination. Registering optimal harvest times; autonomously extinguishing spot fires; and analysing oil spills from air, water and below are just some of the possibilities being explored.
I was born and raised in the 1980s in the UK, when Sir David Attenborough was everyone’s third parent. I remember my sister getting very upset that I wanted to watch the wildlife documentaries on BBC Two, because she didn’t like seeing the antelopes getting eaten by the lions. But I was absolutely intrigued with Africa and the savannah. And I was intrigued with Antarctica, I was intrigued with penguins – I was intrigued with all these things that couldn’t have been further from my Midlands, working-class, single-parent-family upbringing. David Attenborough took me to places that I didn’t even realise existed.
I was maybe a bit of a weird kid, certainly an outlier. For my 13th birthday all I wanted was a BBC Wildlife magazine subscription. Then it was a Greenpeace membership for my 14th birthday – that kind of thing. I had a deep interest and love of nature from a very young age.
Drones have shown me that natural world in ways I had never expected. On my first big project, consulting in Western Australia in 2013, we tried to do what every ecologist dreams of – to understand what’s happening without being seen. How do you look through the keyhole of Mother Nature’s front door to monitor animal activity without sampling bias occurring? I was interested in reducing our impact on the natural world to see what’s there in four dimensions, so we used long-range drones from an Australian company, Aerosonde. Traditional environmental survey work had never been operated in this way before, nor on such a scale with long flight times. Still and video cameras were put on the aircraft that had previously been designed to do weather measurements, but we captured footage of turtles on the offshore sandy islands that would have made David Attenborough buy me a beer – in fact, he may even have bought me dinner! We were able to rebuild entire models of these sandy islands and put them into very high-resolution imagery. We could tell what species of turtle had crawled on a beach, and whether or not it was a false crawl or a nest.
A drone isn’t always the panacea, but we had cloud cover 365, so we couldn’t use satellites. The islands that we were trying to collect information from were beyond the range of helicopters, plus they’re very loud and you’ve got people on board, which is dangerous. But for me, the drone is the “what”, not the “why” – the reason why you’re flying the drone is the thing. That’s the key to the future – how to look at the possibilities that exist for new and emerging technologies. It’s the why and it’s the how – but it’s not the what. The “what” will change, but the why and the how will always stay the same.
The next big thing in drones? That would be intelligent swarming. First, we had swarms doing things like fireworks displays – it was maybe 10 people controlling 100 drones. Now it’s literally 3,000 or 4,000 drones in the sky, and it’s one piece of software controlling them – the technology has advanced so quickly. I call it “drone years”.
Intelligent, almost fully autonomous, multi-platform, and cyber-secure robotics capabilities. The potential in Australia’s farming sector is enormous; our ag tech is going to be a multi-trillion-dollar industry for Australia in coming years, and the “smart farm” is going to be the way to maximise our capabilities, especially in the face of climate change.
There is work being led by Indigenous rangers and First Nations people around the world looking at how to monitor and protect the environment in the face of increasingly powerful storms, floods, fires, cyclones, and other weather problems – how can we use multi-modal drone platforms to better deal with that? Put a drone inside a cyclone or a typhoon and you might sacrifice a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of equipment, but you could be saving thousands of lives. We’ve had people drop drones into live volcanoes to map the live volcano caldera, which of course is a one-way trip. But they’re maybe only a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of drone, and you’re able to capture information in a brand-new way.
Remember, drones don’t just fly. We’ve got drones that swim, crawl, float on the ocean surface. We’ve got big ones called HAPS, the high-altitude pseudo-satellites, that are going to be providing the internet and other communications capabilities to areas that currently don’t have any at an acceptable price point or quality.
So, the future is automated, swarming, multi-modal, or multi-platform drone technology. Say you’ve got to put together an oil spill response. You actually start with an uncrewed vessel on the surface. Then you might drop off an underwater drone, or send off a flying drone. Consider it to be like a beehive, with all these different types of technologies exiting from that vehicle in a pre-planned way.
There is a lot of wildfire and bushfire research happening globally, particularly led by California and Australia; an example is where AI is used with camera technology based on existing monitoring infrastructure. When a fire is detected and analysed, the plan is to have adequate response technologies ready to go immediately. Governments heavily fund responses to bushfires, but I really hope there will be funding made available to have better prevention and immediate detection and extinction instead. Prevention is better than response.
The systems-engineering based approach is in development at the moment, but it is already decades too late. We have plane crashes and lose pilots nearly every bushfire season – it’s a terrible tragedy. That’s because sometimes the aircraft are being retrofitted and used for things that they weren’t necessarily designed for to start with. Can you take a great big water bomber and make it uncrewed? Technically, it’s feasible. Would the safety regulators allow it? That’s another question. The technology is actually not the limitation – traditionally, technology leads both the regulation and the adoption to business as usual. These are two areas of frustration for me, but ones I see finally starting to catch up with capability. Once we have proof new systems can work, then the path forwards is irrefutable, and that is very exciting.
Dr Catherine Ball is an associate professor at the Australian National University (ANU) School of Engineering. She is a scientific futurist, tech influencer, author, champion of diversity, and a proponent of drones for good.