Drones, Droids and Robots

The Australian Federal Government’s ‘National Innovation and Science Agenda’ was hosting the school theme of ‘Drones, Droids and Robots’ last month. The aim of this theme is to ‘embrace [in schools] … real-world application of autonomous technologies in areas including agriculture, mining, manufacturing, medicine and space and deep ocean exploration’.

A robot is pretty much any device that automatically performs physical tasks, sometime repetitively. The border between machines and robots can be quite fuzzy but we can say this; all robots are machines but not all machines are robots. Generally speaking robots include very high levels of computer control, many sensors and in some form or another, they often replicate one or more human functions.

Consider a welding robot in an automotive manufacturing facility. It looks very much like a large and quite intimidating human arm, performing similar functions to a human arm but with much faster speed, higher accuracy and precision, lower overall costs and virtually no occupational health and safety risks.

Droids are a sub-set of robots; those that are mobile and that often have a humanoid form. Until recently droids only existed in science fiction books and movies, but more recently they have become a reality as technology has allowed the productions of autonomous droids for all sorts of functions, such as soccer playing droids created for the Robocup competition and household ‘butler’ droids that have recently popped up on crowd-sourcing funding sites.

Just recently, at a tradeshow in China, I noticed that one of the neighbouring booths had a little droid running around combining the functions of vacuuming and drink delivery. The novelty value of such an oddity probably out-weighed the risks of people tripping over the thing.

The autonomy of real-life droids sometimes requires a form of ‘artificial intelligence’ to provide functionality. Today this artificial intelligence is usually developed within an extremely limited physical environments (such as a soccer pitch) and is really just binary software code that is able to make ‘decisions’ in most possible scenarios within such a closed physical environment.

Certainly no machine, droid or otherwise, has completely passed the Turing Test in an open environment. The Turing Test requires that a machine can fool a human into ‘perceiving’ that the machine is a human. Indeed, in order to pass this test in an open environment a machine would probably require, in addition to artificial intelligence, both artificial sentience and artificial consciousness; we are a long way off developing such a machine.

A drone is very different to a robot or a droid. It is a vessel guided by humans using remote control. The ready availability of cheap technologies for wireless communications and high-density electric battery storage, usually containing lithium, have allowed for the introduction of low cost flying drones (unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) which have captured the imagination of many large businesses, hobbyists and small business entrepreneurs. In addition to UAVs there are also many ground vehicles and water-borne vehicles that are also drones.

Lithium polymer batteries use lithium ion chemistries but have polymer separators that effectively reduce energy capacities compared to lithium ion batteries but permit higher discharge rates. Lithium polymer batteries can have a flat pack configuration as compared to the cylindrical shape of lithium ion batteries. This ease of packaging combined with higher discharge rates has resulted in a situation where most UAVs are powered by lithium polymer batteries.

The future for robots is a given. They have been with us for decades and will continue to get more sophisticated, especially in the manufacturing sector where ever-increasing productivity requires the removal of labour from factories. A similar trend is also going on in the agricultural and mining sectors, where labour is seen as an inhibitor to cost reductions and productivity gains. This trend is underpinned by the fact that robot technology is steadily becoming cheaper and more sophisticated.

Of more interest in the near term is how the specific categories of drones and droids will evolve. Drones and droids, in their modern context, have only just emerged from high-tech laboratories as cost-effective technologies that are available for real-world applications. Previously costs were so high that these technologies were limited to very high value niche applications.

In terms of commercial deployment, drones have gone through a massive non-linear uptake in consumption primarily driven by UAV applications. Droids, although threatening such a leap, have yet to take off in quite the same way.

For UAVs there are five interesting trends:

  • The maximum flight time and distance of UAVs is slowly increasing as battery technologies improve
  • The payload of UAVs is slowly increasing with improved motors, better batteries and higher strength but still light chasses
  • Authorities are limiting the application of UAVs, for safety and privacy reasons, whilst at the same time exploring policies that will allow widespread commercial applications of UAVs
  • The cost of UAVs (per kilometre of flight or per kg of payload per kilometre of flight) is rapidly decreasing
  • Technology groups are developing autonomous flight systems, i.e. fly-by-GPS systems. Strictly speaking, when a UAV flies according to GPS settings it is no longer a drone but more of a flying robot.


All of these trends are pointing towards multiple commercial applications of UAVs. In some cases UAVs are replacing what was formerly ground based commerce, such as high value cargo transport. In other cases, such as cinematography, drones are allowing video filming to capture that which previously was not possible. Indeed, in every instance that I talk to an entrepreneur working with UAVs I discover anew and unexpected use of the technology.

Dow Chemical has recently used UAVs to inspect its chemical plants for issues such as cracks in pipes and tanks. Before it could do so however Dow had to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval to fly the UAV’s over Dow’s own property.

This is an area where government regulations can accelerate or hinder technology deployment. For large-scale commercial deployment of UAVs it is critical that standards for flight path systems and guidance systems are developed. What is most needed is international standards in the area so that the same technology can be deployed globally and thus benefit from the greatest economies of scale. In English, this means that costs will come down quicker.

Standing in the way of such efforts is the fact that it may take years for different nations to collaborate on what is currently seen by many as just a nuisance to aviation. In the meantime, many technology groups are busily filing patents in the area, and these will further confound future efforts to standardise technologies in the UAV market.


Business Ideas for Drone Startups

About two years ago I put together a list of problems/business ideas that I thought really needed solving. This was a really popular story and still receives a lot of Google traffic.

Lot’s of people looking for interesting problems to solve.

I see a lot of pitches either via email or in person, over 400 (370 through our pitch form in the last 3 months) in the last 6 months and despite this there are a stack of interesting problems I am not seeing in development.

Here are a few business ideas for Drone Startups if you are still trying to work out what you want to work on.

Air Traffic Control Systems for Drones.

No Government Airworthiness agency(CASA, FAA) in their right mind is going to allow us to blindly fly 6 packs and pizza around without having some form of traffic control, collision avoidance and either geo and/or height fencing.

In order to fly numerous drones in the same airspace they need to be able to identify each other and avoid flying into each other.

If drones are ever to get clearance to fly more than line of sight (which effectively means a range of <1km) there will have to be a drone air traffic control system.

Otherwise it will only ever be a very short range line of sight delivery capability which will really be useless.

We also need systems and process to control takeoff, landing, flight plans/circuits etc.

The overall systems will probably be built by an expert in the space but each drone will need hardware and software which opens an opportunity for drone system makers.

Collision Avoidance for Drones

Recently I saw a demo of very cool system by the Hovermap team at CSIRO which provides a real time mapping capability of 3d structures and terrain (essentially a geolocated point cloud which acquires 41000 data points a second and can build a 3d model of the world it is flying through).

To make this work the team had to ensure it didn’t run into things and so they created a Collision Avoidance algorithm that take this 3d point cloud and can use it to determine if there are any obstacles in the flight path and relay that in real time to the flight control system allowing the drone to fly around the obstacle.

If we let drones operate outside of the view of operators they will fly into things. They might know where they are going but they can’t see trees and powerlines or tv antennas or other obstacles so to make these services commercial (and to avoid losing a drone every shift) they need to work out how to avoid objects.

This is a hardware, software and embedded software solution, Hovermaps solution is still in development but its pretty close though currently with very high cost heavy hardware (>$15k) but the challenge is to work out how to make this work at <$500.

The challenge is also to make this work at high airspeed as currently the existing technology is good for about 40m.

New Drone Powerplants

Drones with rotors need extended range motors/engines – probably some sort of hybrid petrol + alternator + battery charger.

JetCat P200SX - These small gas turbines range from $2500-6000 USD - Jetcatusa.com

JetCat P200SX – These small gas turbines range from $2500-6000 USD – Jetcatusa.com

Most existing drones only manage 20-30 minutes, not very long to manage deliveries.

It’s not an ideal solution to put 4 petrol engines on a quadcopter or to put a gearbox and drive shaft arrangement, both are too heavy and slow to respond.

Batteries stay the same weight no matter how empty they are, most drones only have 2-5kg payloads so unless we work out some other way to power them they will be limited to very short hops and constant battery swaps.

Fuel on the other hand is very easy to refill, weight decreases with consumption and its energy rich per kg.

Drone Maintenance & Ops

Drone Maintenance and Ops is going to be a problem, a drone landing pad with rapid refuelling and payload loading is needed.

In addition some form of maintenance solution that is both comprehensive and affordable for drone operators.

I am convinced most people have no idea what it takes to keep an aircraft flying. They sit down in a seat, someone brings them a glass of champagne and thats as close as they get to aircraft maintenance and operations.

It’s a huge job to keep an aircraft in the air, constant maintenance and work, no one has really thought about this for drones.

There seems to be a hobbyist view that if it breaks down or dies it doesn’t matter because its not manned.

However they fly over 1000s of people who are as risk as well.

Flight Control Systems for Drones

Current flight control systems are not suitable for flying commercial drone flights over populated areas. In a normal aircraft you have 1-2 pilots plus an autopilot. If a pilot or autopilot fails you have backup.

Most drones have no backup. The pilot is only useful when he has visual contact with the drone, otherwise they have elementary autopilot systems which are responding to pre-programmed flight plans and may have a return to base capability.

Any viable commercial use of drones at scale will need to fly without a human pilot in visual contact otherwise they will have too short a range to be useful so there is a requirement to have backup flight control systems.

These control systems need a redundancy/failover capability in case of main system failure, independent power and connection, essentially two systems side by side able to sense when the primary is not functions. They also need an ability fly a safe return to base program in case of failure.

The brothers Ben & Daniel Dyer who were the first to find Outback Joe in the UAV challenge actually designed and built their own dedicated flight control system with failover built into it and coded their own flight control software (most of the other teams used an open source package) which for a one off build I think is absolutely amazing.


Flight Tasking & Management Platforms

Assuming someone gets to start delivering books, drugs, pizza and beer at scale and there are 1000s of drones flying night and day through our cities, operators are going to have to work out how to task these and manage deployment of 100s of drones per centre.

This requires a delivery platform that can manage the take off and landing of drones, loading of one or more packages, scanning the packages on board, taking the role of loadmaster and then geolocating the delivery address and perhaps some form of location beacon at each address (sort of like ILS, Instrument Landing System) to allow the drone to correctly identify the right place to land, and unload the package.

This will be required as GPS is only accurate to 20m or so.

Perhaps they may require some form of imaging system or recognition system to correctly locate the place to drop.

Keep in mind they wont have visual contact, video may work up to 10km (assuming you can do this without breaching FCC power limits) but is not reliable for real time control nor will it work for night flights.

Someone is going to have to write the software that interfaces the warehouse systems to the flight planning software that then provides a flight plan to the drones autopilot and flight controller.

Unattended Delivery Cages

If we get parcels delivered to unattended locations how do we stop them getting stolen and what are the logistics of the handoff? Do they get dropped into a cage or a drone letterbox?

How do we stop the drones being stolen?

How does the Drone precisely locate the cage, especially when there are numerous apartments in the area?

Air Traffic Control Systems for Drones: Interesting Problems for Entrepreneurs #1

Last year I wrote a post called 5 Real Problems That I Really Think Need Solving which was very popular.

One of our contributors Australian Entrepreneur and Inventor Ian Maxwell was on leave recently and started an Invention a day post while travelling. His posts have inspired me to update my Interesting Problems that I believe are great entrepreneurial opportunities.

So today I kick off a fortnight of Interesting Problems.

Air Traffic Control Systems For Drones.

The Problem:

No Government Air worthiness agency in their right mind is going to allow anyone to blindly fly their drone ferrying 6 packs and pizza around cities without some form of Air Traffic Control, collision detection and avoidance and either geo and/or height fencing (nor should they).

There are no existing systems that will offer this capability given the change in operation that will occur when using Drones in a large numbers in a city.

Existing Air Traffic Control (ATC) have big towers, big airfields, lots of people and extremely expensive and heavy equipment in both the aircraft and the ground stations.

It seems unlikely this infrastructure will be able to be replicated or utilised for Drones.

Existing ATC mode of operation assumes manned flight and assumes the pilots are going to co-operate with the tower and each other.

In order to have commercial drone flight in any meaningful way you need to be able to prevent them from killing people and each other and to co-ordinate their flights to avoid collision with each other, buildings, cars, people and (the elephant in the room) real aircraft.

Also for commercial drones to be used for deliveries, presumably they will need to travel a longer distance than the currently allowed “Line of Sight” distance.

They will also need to be largely autonomous otherwise they will need a full-time operator for each drone which would probably prevent their adoption on a large-scale due to cost.

Until these issues are solved in a meaningful way it seems unlikely FCC or other air worthiness authorities are going to allow high volume drone usage.

Likely Requirements:

  • Low cost – $100 per unit or less
  • Low Weight
  • Low Power Requirements
  • Sensing Range 1km
  • LIDAR/Radar/Ultrasonics
  • Air to Ground Avoidance
  • Air to Air avoidance
  • Obstacle Avoidance
  • Navigation
  • Flight Planning
  • Live Video back to operator
  • Geo & Altitude Fencing
  • Failsafe automatic Landing or return to base

Please discuss with me on Twitter @Mikenicholls88

UAV Outback Challenge – This week is UAV Week

UAV3This week Im off to the temporary UAV Capital of the world Kingaroy in Queensland Australia.

In a moment of craziness on Friday I agreed to drive Team Condor from Sydney to Kingaroy in QLD so they could get to the start line on Monday. Team Condor is made up of a group of Colombian (and I think one Brazilian) University Students, one of whom works on one of my hardware projects.

Team Condor

Team Condor

I will be live blogging and tweeting so follow me on Twitter @mikenicholls88

If you have never heard of the Outback Challenge, essentially it is one of the top UAV contests in the world with $50,000 prize money on offer to the winning teams. More than 80 teams applied earlier in the year, along the way they had to pass key milestones and send evidence to the competition committee to establish their aircraft was capable of passing the competition requirements and was able to compete.

Just over 20 teams actually qualified out of the 80+ including Team Condor.

There are a few categories but essentially it comes down to the following challenge.

Outback Joe is lost in the Australian outback and desperately needs assistance. You must develop a UAV that is capable of locating Outback Joe and delivering an emergency package to him.

Outback Joe

Outback Joe – Credit Outback Challenge

Teams have to take off from the Airport at Kingaroy, fly approximately 5 nautical miles to a search area of approximately 2nm x 2nm and then fly a search pattern to find Outback Joe, a dummy dressed in a Yellow high viz jacket. Outback Joe will be randomly placed in the search area.

Here is the tough bit, they can take off manually, but then have to engage autopilot to fly the aircraft to the search area and then using their autopilot, fly a search pattern to find Outback Joe.

They are live streaming video images back from their onboard cameras, however the winners of the competition will use computer vision software to locate Outback Joe from the surrounding country.

They must then report their location of Joe to the organisers who will then instruct them to drop a bottle of water from the UAV to Outback Joe.

You might think this sounds easy but in past years most teams could not do this.

I can assure you that a drone delivering Pizza, Beer or Amazon packages is not happening anytime soon, its all a PR Stunt. This is actually pretty difficult.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Follow me on the Twitter @mikenicholls88 this week to get updated stories, interviews and pictures of the competition.

PS I am driving the support vehicle for Team Condor,

On board we have a

  • Makerbot 2x 3d Printer
  • Mac with Solidworks CAD software,
  • Soldering Station with hot air gun
  • Dremel and drill press plus a bunch of tools,

We arrive Monday morning, if any of the teams need anything fixed or need to build something come see us.



Photo by San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

Five real problems I really think need solving

“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.”

Henry J. Kaiser US Industrialist I was talking to a class of University students the other day and they were looking for problems to solve as part of their hardware design subject after a lot of thought this is what I came up with. I believe they are validated and represent real business opportunities.

Prototyping and small volume Manufacturing Machines

English: SMT placement machine Juki KE-2080L a...
English: SMT placement machine Juki KE-2080L at Megger’s Dover site. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hardware is hard and expensive to develop. There are a bunch of reasons around this and it’s usually nothing to do with the cost of the components which are mostly very cheap. Its primarily to do with the lags and lead times involved in building new devices and building prototype circuits and devices and access to the equipment needed to build circuits most of which is located in manufacturing centres in Asian countries.

If you believe as I do that Western economies can start to move their smarter manufacturing back from low cost countries, then the logical extension of this is that we should have the ability to quickly and easily make prototypes and send these into small volume manufacturing locally rather than waste 3-4 weeks trying to get someone overseas to prototype it for you (and then have to do it numerous times until you have a workable product)

Also the cost of putting a consumer electronics product into production is in the millions due to setup costs.

Rapid Prototype and small run manufacturing machines could provide solutions to allow local makers and hardware hackers to experiment and build at low volume to prove out a market before they invest $1000000s in funding a full production run.

I am 75% of the way through a rapid prototype for a wearable device at work and one of the things I can say with some conviction is that the faster you can find errors in your designs and correct and test them the cheaper and faster the overall production will be.

But to find errors you usually have to build, if you have to build you usually have to send it overseas, none of this is easy and can take weeks to months, what if you could build it in your office or garage in an afternoon on a Rapid Prototype Machine.

This would further cut the costs and difficulties of developing hardware. I know you can make your own single and double layer boards, there are lots of tutorials on the web but its tough to do anything complex on the kitchen table and it is very difficult to get any sort of complexity using etch resist using Toner/Iron/Sandwich maker.

Typically once you are past the breadboard you have to start thinking about Surface Mount components and these are very small and difficult to work with and require special soldering equipment or ovens.

Brisbane based Cartesian Co has created this fantastic Kickstarter Project the EX1 which provides rapid 3d Printing of Circuit Boards using conductive silver nano paint sprayed on like an inkjet.

EX1-3d Circuit Board Printer - Kickstarter

EX1-3d Circuit Board Printer – Kickstarter

The Kickstarter project finishes today and has smashed its target and is a great example of the need for these type of machines http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cartesianco/the-ex1-rapid-3d-printing-of-circuit-boards?ref=country#

For most of last century a manufacturer and mechanical workshop needed the following

  • Drill press,
  • Lathe,
  • Milling machine,
  • Welder
  • Bandsaw,
  • A massive production line with lots of workers

In this era we need

  • PCB Fabrication Machine
  • Pick and Place Machine
  • SMD surface mount soldering machine/oven
  • 3D printer (with numerous materials)
  • CNC Router/mill
  • Small Production line full of robots
  • Office full of designers and programmers

Domestic Power Consumption Measurement

solar monitor thingy

solar monitor thingy (Photo credit: djbones)

I recently received a $1500 power bill for the quarter. It seems like a lot, its a big house and has some big water pumps but surely not that much.

One or more of the appliances are consuming a lot of energy it would seem but which one?

So here is the problem I cant tell how much power I use in real time, I can’t tell what devices are using the power.

Neither can anyone else.

No single product seems to be able to tell me where the power is being consumed and how to optimise it.

If you are looking for a huge problem this is definitely huge, every home owner in the Western world is going to continue to be hit with rising power bills far in excess of inflation and are looking for easy ways to reduce this.

Solar Power Storage Systems

English: Solar Power demonstration house A dem...

English: Solar Power demonstration house A demonstration of various forms of solar power technology at the CAT 27588. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to convert to solar, but apparently its not very economically feasible, the payback is 5 years plus. In our house and I suspect most houses except retirees, consumption is greatest in the evenings and early mornings and lowest in the day times, which is the exact opposite of solar generation.

And yet almost no one puts in batteries to store the charge generated during the day to power usage during the evening. Instead they pump their excess power (most of it) it back onto the grid where the power companies pay you peanuts for it and if predictions are true will end up charging you an electricity access fee if you start generating enough power to be self sufficient and don’t need them anymore.

So why hasn’t anyone worked out an energy storage system that balances the generation hours and consumption hours, such a system would make solar so much more effective without changing solar cell technology. I haven’t found anything except for extremely expensive batteries and not many are being implemented.

If you could harness all of the power every day and store it, the breakeven on Solar would drop dramatically and most users could probably use smaller systems and cover most of their needs. I can tell you that Governments and Power Companies will not like this and will try to cover infrastructure costs by charging for access to the grid even if you are not using power, however in my opinion if you can manage to supply most of your own power, water and if you can substitute solar power for petrol, you will be next decades rich lister.

Defense System against Spying Drones

MQ-1 Predator - Credit Wikipedia.com

MQ-1 Predator – Credit Wikipedia.com

Destroying or generally defending against drones from paparazzi or unwanted surveillance will become a must have if you are a celebrity or bizoid, someone will work out how to do this without hurting people and will make a business from products that take down or decoy drones. Some of this may or may not be legal depending on where you live.

Easy system for managing Personal Encryption across all your services

Personal encryption is not easy, its non trivial to get end to end encryption of email, VPN or other services or applications without an IT department.

It is impossible to easily ensure all of your personal data and communications are correctly secured. In the days of NSA mega surveillance or for those living in countries with malevolent Governments this may be a matter of life or death but its exceptionally difficult to get right. Someone who made it easy could charge a premium for this.


What do you think? What problems do you see that are validated problems still not solved? Please leave your comments below.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Drones, Bushfires & NSW Rural Fire Service – Big Opportunities to help our fire fighters

MQ-1 Predator - Credit Wikipedia.com

MQ-1 Predator – Credit Wikipedia.com

After 3-4 anxious days of living on the edge of four bushfire zones (Update a new fire has flared overnight 12km from my home) and seeing helicopters and water bombers flying over to Richmond air base, it seems to me that our fire fighters could use some help from the local drone community.

The NSW RFS has done an awesome job in what was arguably the most difficult week we have faced in some years, but seeing these planes fly past at 10-15 minute intervals I got to thinking life would be a lot easier if the Rural Fire Service had access to a fleet of drones.

Turns out Drones have been used very successfully in California to monitor wildfires earlier this year. Using MQ-1 Predator UAVs normally used for military and security purposes the drones were piloted from hundreds of Km away from the site. With infrared and high definition video and the ability to stream this video and data back to base the drones are very effective at surveillance and spotting new outbreaks, they are also reasonably immune to human error that comes with flying in thick smoke and having to use instruments (something which not every pilot is equipped to handle in a bush fire situation)

Think about this, a long-range drone such as the Predator can stay in the air for nearly a whole day. Most humans in a single-seater aircraft would be lucky to do 4-8 hours (I think this is probably a stretch). Assuming you wanted 24 * & coverage of NSW you could arrange 4-5 of these Drones to fly patterns every few hours like a big loop over the affected areas.

Humans in Aircraft are Expensive

The thing that makes aircraft expensive to build and run and limits their range is humans.

When you put a human up into the air, you need a stack of systems and extra hardware to carry the human and to keep them alive which increases weight and reduces the range.

If you build a Drone there is no cockpit, seats, instrument panels, air conditioning, canopy, control sticks and other equipment to operate the aircraft, a very large chunk of the equipment needed on a manned aircraft is eliminated when it is unmanned.

Every time you remove weight you increase range for a given power and lift.

And frankly humans can’t perform effectively for 22 hours and in the dark they are unlikely to see much and on surveillance duties they are unlikely to add much value.

Wildfire in California Credit http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Wildfire in California Credit http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Have a look at this footage captured by a group called Cividrones.com (the name makes me think they are ex defence types, no info can be found online about them except their twitter account).

This amazing footage of a quadcopter drone fitted with a Gopro flying through burnt out buildings shows how versatile drones can be in these situations.

Drones are much cheaper to run and build, you can put them together in weeks rather than years it takes to get aircraft built, they can be set to do certain tasks autonomously such as fly search patterns to observe for fires or to keep station on a particular point.

I know of teams of University students in University of Sydney, UNSW and societies of hackers that could assemble a world-beating set of drones in a very short period of time.


Potential Methods of Operation

If we had a spotter drones with a hyperspectral or infrared cameras, they could conduct surveillance on a very wide range and keep flying 24*7 at a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft.

Some of these UAV using various types of high-tech cameras are able to ascertain different types of plants, one University researcher I know can tell from Satellite photos if Power Stations are running at full steam or if a paddock is fully irrigated or if you have weeds.

I they can do this, then spotting fires from 10,000ft should be relatively easy. Also if the military drone builders can work out how to drop a bomb on a single building then waterbombing a fire front should also be achievable.

When the spotter drone finds fire outbreaks, they could alert the operation centre and provide live video, in this instance a drone QuadCopter could be launched from the roof of a truck and go look over the ridge or into the valley to see where the outbreak is.

A water bomber drone could be launched and deployed to the same co-ordinates within 30 minutes of the outbreak and not wait until it has taken hold.

The aircraft aspect is relatively easy, most of it is 20-year-old technology, the harder part is the software and systems to manage this, the semi or fully autonomous drone is essentially a flying software play and we have the guys sitting in Sydney that can do it.

With autopilot and mission planning software from a company like 3D Robotics a UAV company founded by Chris Anderson the former editor of Wired.com and an aircraft designed for maximum time aloft such as the Zephyr which managed to smash the record for unmanned flight by recording a time of 14 days without landing due to its solar power and lightweigh construction. This is probably not quite robust enough (as the winds hit 50kmh out of my window) but a high aspect ratio solar powered drone could easily staff aloft for days at a time with operators sitting on the ground in safety.




I think the biggest challenges are both human and operational. The hardware and technology is available to do this. Both RFS and CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) have come out warning drones owners to stay away from fires or risk a $30,000 penalty.

I can understand their issue, its hard enough trying to manage air traffic control in a fire zone without a bunch of drones doing sightseeing trips however I think the RFS with CASA’s blessing needs to engage with the local drone community and see if they can contribute their skills to help.

There is no reason that they couldn’t dovetail their capabilities into a normal air traffic control framework, in fact the a surveillance drone could become the virtual Control Tower for a whole operation.

It’s obviously not the time now, but in a few weeks when the fires have settled, I challenge the drone community of Sydney to come together and build a fleet of piloted and autonomous drones that can help fire fighters with surveillance, close in support, water bombing and mission control and I challenge NSW Rural Fire Service and CASA to come together and work out how to facilitate the introduction of drones into active service.

Dream Team

Here is my dream team of guys to take up the challenge.

Its my contention these guys could build a working surveillance drone capable of 12 hours of continuous flight within 6 months that gives command and control capability to NSW RFS and then after that start working on other drone roles such as water-bombing and locally deployable quadcopter for tactical intelligence for local brigade commanders could be developed to work with the surveillance drones.
I think it’s about time we created our own technology for firefighting drones and not wait for the US to let us have it, also much of the technology which drones use very successfully in the US Military for surveillance and targeting is is most likely classified information so if we want the best methods we should be creating it ourselves.

If you think someone should be on this list or you think that I missed something, please let me know.






Enhanced by Zemanta