Unmanned aerial vehicle

Hardware is Hard – Hardware That Flies is Impossible – 7 Lessons from the UAV Outback Challenge Winners

After spending last week observing and supporting Team Condor (Colombia) in the UAV Outback Challenge in Queensland Australia, it was clear to me that there was some common themes that emerged from the four successful teams.

As regular readers will recall, I spent the first 9 years of my working life working on Helicopters for the Royal Australian Navy on an operational squadron, so I know a fair bit about operating aircraft in the real world (admittedly a long time ago).

I met most of the teams over dinner before the Challenges and sat down with the successful teams and picked their brains after winning. Observing the less successful teams also gave me a view about what not to do and areas of improvement.

The Challenge

A recap on the challenge to find Outback Joe and drop him a bottle of water

Outback Joe

Outback Joe

  • Take off from Airport (extra points for autonomous take off)
  • Climb to specified altitude
  • Autonomously Fly to search area approx 5km away
  • Commence Search Pattern in search area approximately 2 nautical miles by 3 nautical miles
  • Use computer vision to scan images from camera under aircraft
  • Alert teams when Computer Vision finds Outback Joe (this is a dummy dressed in day-glow yellow vest)
  • Manual image spotting could be used if Computer Vision failed but this would mean less points
  • Report position to Competitor Marshalls and request position to drop a water bottle
  • Drop bottle (on the day of 15-20kn crosswind had to be factored in)
  • Return to airport and land (extra points for autonomous landing)

Key Rules

This was a CASA sanctioned event on a public airport flying which was being used during the competition with flights over populated farmland so naturally there were a lot of rules, initially they seemed excessive, in hindsight essential.

  • Must stay within the flight corridor and search areas at a maximum ceiling.
  • Auto Termination-This is the one that gave the teams the most problems, you couldn’t start until you could prove you complied – Your aircraft musthave an independent termination control unit that will automatically crashit self into the ground if it breaches any of the following conditions;
    • You have to be able to set a Geo Fence in both your mission planner and in the termination system
    • If you fly outside the search or flight corridor it must crash itself
    • If your termination unit loses connection with the autopilot/flight control systemor becomes unresponsive it must crash itself
    • If you fly too high – crash again

The Numbers

  • ~80 teams applied for the challenge
  • ~20 made it through the tests and acceptance criteria prior to being accepted to compete
  • Only 14 made it to the start including 7 international teams (which is not the whole story either, many deferred their first start and one only completed scrutiny 5 minutes before competing on the final day in overtime)
  • 3 teams crashed including one that needed to be extracted from a tree.
  • 5 Teams correctly identified Outback Joes correct position and were given permission to drop a water bottle
  • 4 teams dropped bottles inside the 100m radius of Outback Joe
  • Only 1 team, Canberra UAV came within 10m with their bottle dropping an amazing 2.6 m from Joe (with a 15-20kn cross wind)

This is a hard problem

The first thing to say is that this was a difficult challenge, its been the first time its been achieved.

You think it shouldn’t be that hard, Hollywood makes us believe an 8 year old can put together a UAV and fly it cross country but it really is a difficult problem or in fact a collection of difficult problems flying in formation.

Essentially you have to solve problems involving aeronautics , avionics, telemetry, radio, battery or petrol power, video transmission, computer vision and navigation.

In most cases successful operation involved successful integration of multiple disparate embedded microcontroller systems, servo’s, mobile and desktop computing, radio, RF signal tuning, WIFI, 4G & GPS as well as being able to build, maintain and operate the aircraft and then pilot it.

When you opened them up most of the aircraft looked like the inside of a computer.


These are all problems aircraft and component manufacturers have been working on for 80 years and the components to enable this is only just starting to make its way into products which are suitable in size and cost for hobbyists and hackers.

Observing the operations of most of the crews I can tell you that this is not mainstream, it is not operationally ready for the real world.

Don’t expect your Amazon deliveries, Beer or Pizza via drone anytime soon.

Lakemaid-DroneCASA and the FAA know this, however many hobbyists either are not aware or don’t think its a big issue.

Before I observed the Outback Challenge, I was much the same, how hard could it be? Launch the aircraft, draw a few waypoints on the autopilot screen, press the button to drop and you are home in time for a few beers.

But the fact that arguably some of the best non military drone guys in the world couldn’t manage to fly at the same level of operational capability or safety of your average crop duster or Cessna pilot tells you that drones or UAVs are not ready for widespread commercial adoption.

There is just too much that can go wrong and the airframes or avionics packages are not professional enough nor is there the operational flight systems in place, think control towers, IFF, radar and some method of controlling their flight plan in a way they don’t fly into each other, humans, buildings or aircraft. (this is a huge potential issue for hobbyists, its only going to take a few aircraft vs UAV/Piloted RC Aircraft incidents and national aviation authorities may ban UAV operations)

So what lessons can we learn from the winners?

Testing and Backup Plans – Canberra UAV

In my opinion the teams that were successful won the competition before they got to the airfield.

Canberra UAV

Canberra UAV

The overall winners Canberra UAV took home the major $50,000 prize. I sat down with Andrew Tridgell one of the key team members (and inventor of the SAMBA file system and Open Source Legend) and a major contributor to the APM autopilot software that the majority of the competitors used.

The Canberra Team told me prior to the event that they had already flown a replica of the mission successfully numerous times and had found Joe in practice a number of times.

When I asked Andrew afterwards he went into detail, they had run up at least 25 complete fully automated test flights to test all of the components outside Canberra using safety pilots & observers on hills to ensure they stayed within CASA regulations and run countless part tests.

They had tested the two stage bottle release until it was functioning perfectly (it releases the back of the bottle and then streams the parachute before realising this as well).

Most of the teams I spoke to were lucky to have run a few full tests of all systems at once.

Most of the testing I saw was one system at a time ie autopilot now, then camera, then mission planner, etc, very few I spoke to did anywhere the amount of testing these guys did.

Canberra didn’t have the sexiest airframe (Poland took this out with Singapore a close second) but they deserved to win, aside from the fact that Andrew Tridgell was actually running around helping all the other teams during the week with any issues they had on the APM:Plane software including releasing code updates during the competition to help some of the teams, in my opinion they had a level of testing, operations and professionalism well above the rest of the teams.

They also had backup plans laid out for just about every problem they thought they would experience.

They had failsafe flight controllers/Autopilot computers, backup comms links, automatic restart if they lost power.

Above all they had dogged relentless determination to get across the line. The problems they experienced during the lead up would have killed most teams.

  • They spent $18,000 building 3 bushmaster self designed aircraft, however none of them made it to the competition two crashed and the 3rd was wiped out by the local president of the airfield looping his acrobatics aircraft straight through their fuselage during a test flight rendering it to small pieces of balsa only a month out from the competition.
  • Fortunately they had another back up plan and aircraft based on a Pilatus Porter which they had submitted during the qualifications and so were able to compete.
  • They had the pixar board redesigned to actually win this competition and a number of teams were using their work.

Admittedly they had Andrew working part time on the challenge for the better part of a year and financial and technical help from the leaders in the space 3D Robotics, they were far better resourced than almost all of the competitors, though reportedly the Polish team had a much bigger budget and their aircraft showed it.

They did make some mistakes, as mentioned the wind was gusting 15-20 kn when they took off. The only problem was they couldn’t tell that in the blackout operations tent that they set the flight and navigation team up in and it wasn’t passed back from their ground crew (yep it looked like a real military operation).

So when the aircraft took off it was blown off course straight towards the competition tent and the team almost had to abort the mission.

One small operational detail almost derailed them….

Checklists – Team Robota

Antonio Liska led this team. Overall the aircraft was pretty small and plain but this is a common theme, the successful guys put their efforts into the flight control systems, not the airframes.


Robota Money Shot



Robota – Bombs away – dropping the water bottle to Joe

Antonio is selling 1-2 Robota-Joe-Spotted Robota-On-ApproachRobota Supernova Drones each month for surveying, agricultural and mapping work at $USD10,000 each. So this is his business and finding Joe is going to give a nice boost.

They managed Auto take off and land and found Joe in 12 min which is very fast. They loitered for 10 m and dropped the bottle.

Due to the nature of his business they had a of practice.

I think the key thing about Robota aside from good airframe and avionics was strict discipline around checklists.

Checklists changed the face of aviation in the early days. Its hard to imagine but they Checklists were not compulsory on aircraft originally.

It wasnt until the 1935 crash of a Boeing B17 Prototype that Boeing introduced preflight and landing checklists and they became common practice.

Robota had a checklist of checklists, these are the ones I remember

  • Night Before
  • Hour Before
  • Pre leaving the base camp to go to the test site.
  • T+5 minutes
  • Checklist for dropping the bottle to Joe
  • Checklist for landing

I saw a lot of mistakes from other teams that were absolutely avoidable using either daily inspections (DIs as we used to call them), pre flight (maintenance) or pre takeoff (pilot) inspections or checklists.

Simplicity Wherever Possible – Team SWFA

Mission Complete UAV-Team-SWFA1The two brothers Ben and Daniel from Team SWFA were the first team in history to find Joe and drop him a bottle. In my opinion they were extremely successful given they had a fraction of the human and financial resources of the other teams.

When I asked them about their success they put it down to simplicity and luck. They went with a very simple cheap airframe (it was so unexciting I didn’t originally take a photo of it) they only had about 10 hours full autopilot flight and had found Joe in practice.

They had a re-inforced bottle which meant that they didn’t need a complicated parachute release system.

Airframes are interesting but Avionics are crucial

Team Singapore

Team Singapore

The most impressive airframes Singapore and Poland really didn’t rate. They both looked like they were hijacked from their respective countries Airforces, truly impressive entries for non commercial teams.

An aside apparently Singapore forbids the use of petrol powered remote aircraft and had very limited airspace in which to fly basically he had less than a football field to practice in and the aircraft spent its entire test time in a loop.

But in the end the airframe really wasn’t the critical problem.

As long as it could fly for an hour and could carry the combined payload of avionics and the bottle of water the airframe didn’t make a lot of difference to the result. Two of the winners used foam kit planes that cost under $200.

They needed to be robust enough to land and not break up (some of them had parachutes which looks fantastic when deployed), handle strong winds and stay in the air for an hour and that was about it.

The thing that impressed me and the area where SFWA didn’t skimp was avionics. Daniel is a embedded hardware engineer and Ben runs an enterprise email marketing company that sends over a billion emails a year.

They created their own custom flight controller board using a Texas Instruments DSP chip with a custom two board design and an ARM Xenix 4512 quad core chip for image processing

They wrote their own custom autopilot software as they felt the APM software didn’t have a great track record with a light aircraft in strong winds (which is definitely what they got).

In hindsight Ben said they would now just use APM and integrate some of their own algorithms.

It impressed me that so many of the teams had designed their own custom boards to give them the functionality and then had these professionally manufactured.

Some of the boards had sophisticated failover systems that could handle battery and battery cell failure, dual autopilot processors that would fail over if the primary failed

My sense was that there was good business opportunity for some of these teams to start producing what they had built.

Recognize your teams limitations and resources and only focus on what you can manage. – Team Thunder

Peter Wlodarczyk from Team Thunder is an engineering manager at Resmed. He managed to pull his team together over the last year but recognised very early that none of the team members had much time and very little experience. All of the guys had young families which made practice time extremely difficult IMG_2015 IMG_2019 IMG_2020 IMG_2033

I met Peter for the first time the week before the Challenge at our local model airfield in the Hawkesbury district in Sydney, initially they looked impressive but we pretty quickly realised that they had similar issues with operational experience that the Team Condor guys I was supporting had.

By his own admission they didn’t have much experience in any of the challenges aspects of the competition. They had to pick the battles to fight.

Their solution was to use as much pre made software and hardware as they could and a simple robust airframe and focus on the programming of the system and getting the operations right.

In hindsight he would have spent a lot more time on the simulator to compensate for the lack of operational flight time.

They crashed 5-6 times and went through a few airframe parts, but had spares.

They only managed to test completely 4 times before the competition.

Airframes Maintenance & Airmanship

A common thing I saw from some of the competitors was crappy airmanship when it came to the presentation and operation of the aircraft.

Here is a few things I saw that need to be improved.

  • Connecting wires between components hanging down into control lines.
  • Wires going everywhere and components stuck haphazardly in avionics compartments
  • No procedures for accounting for tools or other objects which might be accidentally included in the flight (this used to be a big deal in my day, Squadrons were suspended from flying if a tool went missing or they couldn’t account for a nut or bolt)
  • Fuelling and de-fuelling without grounding straps and with power on the aircraft
  • Prop safety
  • Ineffectual pre-flight checks (connecting wires disconnected)
  • Lack of a clear chain of command on the ground and in the air (see the next point)
  • Lack of clear method of requesting permission to take off, land and aircraft search evolutions.
  • Lack of aircraft taxiing and movement safety (cant tell you how many times I saw people move their aircraft and bash the tail or wings on objects.


Captain my Captain – Control & Command and Division of Duties

Ships and Aircraft have a clearly identified captain for a reason. When it all goes to shit it needs to be clear who owns the situation and has authority and capability to resolve it.

When decisions have to be made it is clear who needs to make them. The buck has to stop somewhere.UAV-Late-Nights UAV-Late-Nights2

Someone must be watching and controlling the operations of the team members and the work and problems of the various different disparate components that make up an aircraft.

I saw a number of teams really struggling with this concept, it wasn’t clear who was in charge or deliberately no one was and duties and responsibilities were not clearly defined.

When something went wrong it wasn’t clear who owned the problem.

Many of these teams were working into the night during the week trying to resolve problems, I believe a little more leadership up front might have prevented these last minute sessions.

It was clear to me that the successful teams knew who was in charge. It might be a different person for ground maintenance to flying operations but it was very clear.

I had discussions over beers with some of the successful team leaders, who realised they had a problem early on and despite not officially being team managers were taking the role and pushing their teams along even though in some cases it was causing friction.

Other teams were more democratic and less successful.

In my opinion you do need to select a team manager who is responsible for organising all of the other team members and their work and operation of the aircraft even if that means their job is primarily organising and leading and not much actual hands on work.


I think the guys in the Compass team despite not being successful in finding Joe seemed to have a really good handle on this, they managed to mount this challenge despite their team members being spread out between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and the leader basically chased them for deliverables each and every week, organised frequent and regular practice, built a sophisticated custom flight system and put together a great challenge.

I hope this has helped you in your quest to mount either the next UAV Outback Challenge or some other UAV competition.


UAV Challenge Mission Complete Team SWFA Drops Water to Outback Joe

Moments after I pressed the publish key on the last post Outback Joe is in Deep Shit, word came through that these two young brothers Ben & Daniel Dyer have managed to get their aircraft into the search zone, find Outback Joe and successfully drop him a 500ml bottle of water within 25m.

This is the first time this mission has been successfully accomplished in the history of the competition.

The brothers from Melbourne put their success down to lack of bad luck and simplicity of design both in the airframe and the release mechanism.

But not the software and flight control boards, turns out Daniel is an embedded systems engineer and Ben runs an enterprise Email company that sends over 1 billion emails a year. Between them they designed their own custom flight control boards which had a Texas Instruments DSP chip for autopilot and an ARM Xenix Quad Core Microcontroller running Linux for the image processing.

Unlike most of the other teams they decided the standard Ardupilot was not going to cut it for the lightweight wing design in heavier wind so they wrote their own autopilot software from scratch.

Given the disparity in the resources both financial, engineering and human between some of the teams, (Team Poland turned up with a Drone so impressive that looked like it had been stolen from the Polish Airforce and some of the other teams have guys who designed some of the autopilot software) this is an amazing result, congratulations guys.


Winners are Grinners – Credit OutbackChallenge.com

Have to think that they will knocking back job offers left right and center, well done guys.


UAV Outback Challenge – Photos – High School Students Airborne Delivery Competition

We watched the School Students prepare and compete today, pretty sure I got photos of all of them, sorry if I missed anyone.

Special mentions go to the Jaimyn Mayer from Brisbane. I really felt for him, his UAV appeared to lose radio communication during the scrutineering flight and then his aircraft terminated its flight like they are supposed to.

Unfortunately his aircraft was a complete write off but I feel he deserves special mention. All of the other teams had teachers and schools who launched a challenge, this young guy saved up the money himself and ran the challenge all on his own which is an amazing feat.

Also well done to the team from the US who managed to rebuildIMG_1888 IMG_1884 IMG_1883 IMG_1882 IMG_1880 IMG_1879 IMG_1934 IMG_1923 IMG_1922 IMG_1921 IMG_1919 IMG_1918 IMG_1916 IMG_1915 IMG_1914 IMG_1913 IMG_1910 IMG_1909 IMG_1908 IMG_1907 IMG_1904 IMG_1905 IMG_1900 IMG_1899 IMG_1898 IMG_1897 IMG_1895 IMG_1894 IMG_1893 IMG_1892 IMG_1891 IMG_1890 IMG_1934 their Hexacopter into a Quadcopter after of four rotor blades when



the wind gusted blowing it over, despite trying to 3D print these, they removed two arms and reconfigured the flight control system to allow it to fly as a quadcopter. Despite this they were eliminated the next morning, great effort team.

suffering thedestruction of four rotor blades when the wind gusted blowing it over, despite trying to 3D print these, they removed two arms and reconfigured the flight control system to allow it to fly as a quadcopter. Despite this they were eliminated the next morning, great effort team.


of four rotor blades when the wind gusted blowing it over, despite trying to 3D print these, they removed two arms and reconfigured the flight control system to allow it to fly as a quadcopter. Despite this they were eliminated the next morning, great effort team.

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

9 Cool Drone & Quadcopter Startups & Kickstarter Projects

Personal Drone Detection System

Personal Drone Detection System 6 months ago I predicted the need to defend yourself against drones invading your privacy and security (my solution was slightly more aggressive, basically a system that would shoot them out of the air).

Aplus mobile has a Kickstarter campaign that frankly is not going so well $1500 pledged out of $8000 target with 3 days to go,Personal Drone Detection System I would have thought that every celebrity would be backing them.

Essentially this allows you to detect the presence of Drones, maybe the kickstarter project is stillborn because Drones are essentially loud buzzing things that are pretty obvious, what you need is something to actually disable the drone, perhaps some stealth defence drone that can shoot down other drones (yes I think it will come to this, if I was a celebrity being hounded by press this is exactly what I would do)


Virtually Indestructible Quadcopters


These guys have created a Virtually Indestructible Quadcopter they fly it into solid surfaces, launch it from the water, hit it with a paintball gun and a shotgun and it still intact.

Having smashed a bunch of quadcopter parts with my kids over the years, we ended up giving up on it as the cost of keeping one the air with children flying was prohibitive, not to mention the fact it spent more time waiting for parts than it ever did flying.



DYIDrones.com & 3drobotics.com

These guys DYIDrones.com & 3drobotics.com are the pioneers and leaders in the semi pro enthusiast market making and selling ardupilot open source autopilot software for drones as well as all the hardware and software to enable this along with ready kitted out airframes.DYIDrones

The interesting back story behind this company is that the founders met each other online and founded a company before actually physically meeting. Former Wired Editor Chris Anderson explains how he accidentally kickstarted the drone industry on Wired



OpenPilot is a competitor to Ardupilot but is aimed at the more professional end of the nascent commercial drone market.

OpenPilot was started at the beginning of 2010 and is a serious use platform aimed at civilian and research purposes, with emphasis being placed on making the platform especially suitable for aerial photography and aerial video applications.


Beer Delivering Drone

The aircraft engineer in me (yes I was, once upon a time in another lifetime) says that this video didn’t have a full case of beer below it, but the beer drinker in me loves the concept.

Drone Deploy

Drone Deploy is a hardware and software solution to enable cloud based mission control for drones. By including an LTE comms unit in the device it gives you the ability to tap into the mobile phone networks and extend your range literally across the globe.



Parrot BeBop Quadcopter

Parrot one of the more successful enthusiast quadcopter manufacturers is about to release their latest version the new Bebop quadcopter with built in rotor guard and 14 megapixel gyro stabilized video camera.

The Bebop Drone analyzes data from numerous sensors automatically: 3-axes accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer. one ultrasound sensor with an 8 meters reach, one pressure sensor and a vertical camera to track the speed.


Parrot-Bebop-Drone Parrot-indoor


Penguin B UAV

The UAV factory builds the Penguin B UAV which it the closest thing you can get to a military drone without putting on a Uniform, when launched from a car and landing on skids that form part of the tailplane this baby holds the flight record for 54.5 hours aloft.


Tilt Rotor Quadcopter

Tilt Rotor Quadcopter is an experimental project which allows the rotors to tilt forward thereby transferring rotor thrust forward without having to tilt the entire airframe forward, exposing the top of the quadcopter to a massive amount of drag and an unstable mode of flight (there used to be a phenomena with early helicopters in particular the Bell Iroquois called the Huey roll, where by a sudden take off with extreme nose down attitude would result in massive pressure to the top of the cabin forcing it into a situation it could never recover from).

By tilting the rotors forward this Quadcopter has managed a top speed of 53mph



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.






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