Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Rise of the Drones

By Jackie Craig

Drones were a military initiative but their widespread civilian adoption is outpacing efforts to regulate their use.

Last year I was starkly reminded of the rapid development, ease of accessibility and wide adoption of drone technology. I was rock climbing in the Italian Alps when a drone, operated by a hobbyist, appeared just above me, no doubt taking video footage of my efforts.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), popularly called drones, have their heritage within defence, and until recently their development was predominantly driven by defence applications. Drones offer key advantages in that they can undertake dangerous, long or highly repetitive missions, some with such a high degree of autonomy they require little human intervention.

Australian Defence involvement with UAVs dates back to 1948 when Jindivik was developed as a target for testing missile performance. Modern UAVs are designed for more sophisticated roles, including long-range reconnaissance and persistent surveillance of large areas.

The capability of UAVs are as much determined by the payload and off-board systems as by the airframe. For example, Australian Defence is currently acquiring the Triton system for broad-area maritime surveillance. Triton is a variant of Global Hawk, a high-altitude, long endurance land reconnaissance UAV. While the airframe remained substantially unchanged, adapting from land reconnaissance to maritime surveillance required development of the sensors, mission planning, system control and data analysis aspects of the system.

Typically only large organisations such as Defence own and operate large, complex and expensive UAVs like Global Hawk. However, digital technology is driving the development of small, cheap, user-friendly and very capable drones.

Imaging drones are now widely available and are being enthusiastically adopted. The UAV hovering above me in the Alps likely had a stabilised camera that captured high-definition video and transmitted it to the ground, possibly to be stored on a smart phone or tablet that was also controlling the system.

Such drones are being used by small businesses to produce marketing videos, the film industry and sports media to capture shots from novel positions, farmers to remotely monitor crops, emergency services to search inaccessible places, and surf lifesavers to augment their surveillance, provide alerts and drop rescue pods.

Autonomous technology is expanding into civilian drones and is a key enabler for applications such as autonomous parcel delivery being pursued by Amazon, DHL and Alphabet. Civilian drones now outnumber military drones, and as technology progresses we may expect civilian drones to rival military drones for the complexity of tasks they are able to undertake.

New technologies inevitably bring challenges that need to be addressed through regulation and technical solutions. In the case of drones these challenges are safety, security and privacy.

Ensuring drones cannot jeopardise the safety of commercial airspace is essential, along with ensuring they pose no threat to those on the ground. The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has a range of regulations to which drone pilots must adhere. However, as systems become more autonomous, the regulatory framework will need to be updated to keep abreast of the safety challenges.

Malicious use of drones that threaten security has already emerged with disruption of airports and delivery of drugs into prisons. In these situations, technology solutions are needed to augment any regulatory framework. Methods to detect, locate, track and defeat drones is a large area of research and development that will continue to grow as the capabilities of drones improve.

Privacy concerns around recreational drones is increasing as their proliferation accelerates. Within Australia, the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) applies only to large corporations, and there is no specific privacy legislation relating to recreational drones.

CASA regulations prevent overflight of crowded areas and approaches closer than 30 metres. However, these are safety-related and CASA will not pursue privacy complaints. For the moment, if you have a drone flying over you, your legal options for addressing invasion of privacy are limited.

I am not sure of the privacy laws within Italy, but I sometimes wonder if somewhere on the internet there is an unflattering video of me climbing in the Italian Alps.

Dr Jackie Craig FTSE was a defence scientist for 35 years who worked on space, big data, UAVs, cyberwarfare and electronic warfare systems.