Eyes in the sky

20/06/2019 - 12:54

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Drone technology is becoming more visible in our skies, with a vast number of professional applications.

Drones are in action worldwide across industries as diverse as mining, agriculture, transport and emergency rescue. Photo: Stockphoto

Drone technology is becoming more visible in our skies, with a vast number of professional applications. 

Drones may be dismissed by some as little more than the latest tech fad for Instagram models to take selfies, but it’s worth understanding the diverse usage and potential applications for these powerful pieces of technology.

From farming tools to shark surveillance, through to retail deliveries and humanitarian response – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are paving the way for huge advancements across all industries.

Beach patrols

Surf Life Saving WA general manager Chris Peck said drones had proved to be a huge success on the state’s beaches.

He said drones were becoming a standard piece of equipment for beach patrols to spot sharks, locate swimmers in trouble, and alert lifeguards to dangerous rips.

Building and resources

Perth company Drone Inspections WA offers surveying and auditing services using remotely piloted aircraft. It undertakes gas detection, and power line and asset inspection work that is far more complex and costly to undertake with other methods.

Compared with traditional processes that involve scaffolding, rope access, cherry pickers and cranes, it’s easy to see how drones reduce occupational health and safety liabilities and are a more cost-effective solution.

Agriculture 

Autonomous aircraft have a great part to play in the future of farming, according to Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development research officer Nick Wright. 

Mr Wright said drones were used to check crops for waterlogging, to count livestock, monitor crop health, spray weeds, disburse pest control, and even plant trees.

The efficiency achieved planting trees is remarkable, he said. With just one operator commanding six drones, up to 100,000 trees can be planted a day.

In Tasmania, that state’s Institute of Agriculture has devised a ‘lambulance’, which is essentially a drone fitted with an infrared camera. It can detect thermal signatures that allow farmers to track the health of a lamb.

Transport and deliveries

Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com has been using drones for deliveries in China for more than two years.

Chief strategy officer Jon Liao said the results had been significant.

“We have seen the profound impact that the technology can have on people’s lives around the country,” he said.

JD.com held trials in Indonesia this year, completing its first government-approved drone delivery in January. The company sent a donation of books and backpacks to schools, in place of ferrying them over.

Just a few weeks ago at an artificial intelligence conference, Amazon announced the upcoming launch of a new drone delivery service, expected within a few months. While the company successfully delivered a package to a UK customer back in 2016, safety and reliability were concerns. The new and improved service is set to deliver packages to Amazon customers within just 30 minutes.

Wildlife

UAVs have also proved effective with monitoring, protecting and controlling wildlife. Studies have shown that drones can report on animal numbers with far more accuracy than humans.

Conservationist group Air Shepherd operates drones to prevent poaching at night (when 80 per cent of poaching occurs). Countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi economically rely on the wildlife for tourism and seek to stop the illicit animal trade, which often funds other criminal activity.

Emergency response

Armed with a drone, emergency and humanitarian organisations can locate missing persons faster, enter dangerous terrain, and offer situational awareness that cannot be equalled from the ground.

In response to a disaster, these eyes in the sky offer remote sensing, high-resolution imaging and micro-transportation. They can also act as portable communication towers that strengthen WiFi connectivity, leaving lines of communication open to authorities and loved ones.

Medical

To further showcase the life-saving capabilities of UAVs, UNICEF trialled delivering vaccines to inaccessible communities in Vanuatu. The climate and topography in the area makes this extremely difficult to do otherwise. The goal is to eventually schedule regular drops of health supplies to remote regions.

After a tsunami in Japan in 2011, The International Atomic Energy Agency is using a quadcopter to visually map gamma radiation at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, preventing health risks that may threaten the surrounding population.

Over in Brazil, mosquitoes are being sterilised by radiation and released via drone to reduce the spread of diseases such as malaria and Zika. Tests last year have shown that it has not had any damaging impact on the wildlife whatsoever, with scientists deeming it to be a success.

It is likely in the immediate future that UAVs will face a number of legislative hurdles and public backlash. However, with the ongoing discovery of new benefits, it’s plausible to believe they are here for good. Drones will eventually become as ubiquitous as electricity, the internet and mobile phones, making their way into our skies and seamlessly integrating into our day-to-day lives.

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