Custom-made, state-of-the-art medical drones with a flying range of up to 250km will be developed and trialled for delivery of potentially life-saving medicines in the Northern Territory – Australia’s first ever healthcare drone trail for regional Australia.
The project will also pave the way for future delivery of critical items such as cold-storage vaccines (COVID-19) in regional and remote communities, the iMOVE Cooperative Research Centre – part of the Federal Government-funded CRC Program has announced.
The Northern Territory is one of the most sparsely settled jurisdictions in the developed world with a significant Indigenous population living in remote communities.
iMOVE is funding the project in partnership with the NT Government Department of Health and Charles Darwin University (CDU), who will manage the trial under Associate Professor Hamish Campbell.
The project is already running with talks underway with manufacturers for suitable drone airframes capable of handling wet and dry seasons, and a maximum flying range of 250km.
Leading drone services consultants Hover UAV, who have managed projects for Google and developed cutting-edge shark detection surveillance technology, are advising on the project.
Drone pilots will soon be recruited and will undergo specialist training.
The Project will involve developing a drone test flight centre in the Northern Territory.
Key goals and milestones for the project include:
Regular drone flights of up to 100km by the end of 2021
Regular drone flights of up to 250km & regular transport of medical items to and from remote communities by July 1, 2023
Further development into drone delivery of cold-chain items (COVID-19 vaccine)
iMOVE programs director Lee-Ann Breger, a specialist in transformational R&D, conceived the project and was heavily involved in bringing together the necessary industry and government partners needed to undertake the project.
“There are about eight million people living in rural and remote parts of the country – that’s about a third of our population living in places where getting life-saving medical supplies is not only a race against time, but also a battle against the tyranny of distance, harsh landscapes and unpredictable elements,” she said.
“Regional communities face medical access and health supply issues. This doesn’t have to be the case. We have the technology to put an end to this deprivation, especially in remote Northern Territory First Nations communities,” she said.
Breger said one of the project’s main goals was to create an efficient model so drone health delivery services could eventually be rolled out in other regional locations across Australia.
“We are looking at developing capacity and ways of doing things to ensure sustainability of this service beyond the lifetime of the project. It’s ground-breaking and important work, with significant benefits for millions of people who live in regional areas.
“Drones seem an obvious solution, a potential game-changer. In the not too distant future, if you see a drone flying overhead in the middle of nowhere there’s a fair chance that technology is on its way to help someone or even save their life,” Breger said.
As the COVID-19 death toll mounts and the world hangs its hopes on effective vaccines, what else can we do to save lives in this pandemic?
In UniSA’s case, design world-first technology that combines engineering, drones, cameras, and artificial intelligence to monitor people’s vital health signs remotely.
In 2020 the University of South Australia joined forces with the world’s oldest commercial drone manufacturer, Draganfly Inc, to develop technology which remotely detects the key symptoms of COVID-19 – breathing and heart rates, temperature, and blood oxygen levels.
Within months, the technology had moved from drones to security cameras and kiosks, scanning vital health signs in 15 seconds and adding social distancing software to the mix.
In September 2020, Alabama State University became the first higher education institution in the world to use the technology to spot COVID-19 symptoms in its staff and students and enforce social distancing, ensuring they had one of the lowest COVID infection rates on any US campus. ASU President, Quinton T. Ross, Jr., described the software as a “godsend”.
The collaboration between UniSA and its North American drone partner is helping to address potentially the number one threat to humanity – health security – and usher in a new era of telehealth.In this short documentary, Professor Javaan Chahl and his PhD students discuss the extraordinary journey they undertook in 2020 with this world-first technology to curb COVID-19, along with commentary from Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell and Alabama State University.
You’re on your roof, surrounded by floodwater. You’re trying to decide if you should risk death by dehydration if you stay put, or death by drowning if you try to swim to freedom. But wait…is that a drone approaching? A compact drone touches down beside you, laden with food and water. Another maps your location in a fly-by, sending your coordinates to a heavy-lifting drone, which soon arrives to winch you to safety. UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) tech to the rescue.
Already used to carry out post-disaster aerial assessment, drones could soon be saving lives autonomously.
Humanitarian delivery drones
Last year, a Domino’s pizza made history as the first commercial food delivery by UAV. The delivery took place in New Zealand using a drone called Flirtey, co-created by Australian entrepreneur and CEO Matthew Sweeney, who is now turning his attention to the delivery of essential supplies to war and disaster zones.
Traditional humanitarian food drops using cargo planes (with or without parachutes attached to the packages) are often expensive, inefficient in comparison to road convoys and present a hazard to civilians. Winds present a technical challenge and they require a wide open drop zone, making them an avenue of last resort only.
Drones provide a degree of flight control which could avoid these issues. A UK company called Windhorse Aero is developing a lightweight, potentially even edible, UAV for aid delivery. In future iterations, parts of the frame and electronics could be made of food to maximise the delivery of supplies. Using Flirtey, Sweeney has demonstrated the delivery of packages of pharmaceuticals, while other startups such as Zipline Internationals are using drones in Rwanda to deliver blood for transfusions.
As weight lifting capabilities of drones improve, they have the capacity to delivery rescue ropes and life jackets when rescue crews are unable to reach people in danger. Griff Aviation recently announced that they have developed a people-lifting UAV, capable of lifting a payload of up to 225kg. It has been designed especially for the armed forces, fire fighters and search and rescue teams.
Across Australia, drones are being rolled out across fire-fighting units and can provide real time assessment of areas too dangerous to access, as well as providing rapid damage assessments . The next step is drones with firefighting capabilities. Global security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin is working on its unmanned K-MAX cargo helicopter, which has been demonstrated to both identify and put out a fire.
Dr Catherine Ball, CEO of drone education program SheFlies and co-creator of the World of Drones Congress, says that there needs to be a greater focus on the capabilities of “drones for good. We have a moral obligation to take on technologies that will potentially save lives.”
Ball describes Australia as the “perfect test bed for collaborations”. Unlike in many other countries, Australian airspace regulation easily allows for trials, tests and training. While Australia might not be at the forefront of drone manufacturing, Ball told the SmB audience that we can easily become a leader in smart operation if we use drone data wisely.
“People make decisions worth billions of dollars based on this information”, said Ball. Ball and Phinn presented an overview of how drone data is being used in agriculture, ecology and climate forecasting in order to benefit the economy, environment and communities.
What is Earth Observation (EO)?
The gathering of Earth information via remote sensing and on-ground techniques.
What is remote sensing?
The acquisition of information without making physical contact, normally using satellite- or aircraft-based technologies.
What is a drone?
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
What are the benefits of drone data?
Drones often provides better resolution than satellite imaging, which can be adversely affected by cloud-based cover, and they negate the need to put people at risk when on-the-ground data may be dangerous to obtain.
Agricultural boost: increasing crop yield by 166%
Using infrared mapping, drones can predict crop yield and provide an early warning of crop stress to boost agribusiness.
WA-based agricultural UAV provider Stratus Imaging says that farmers can potentially increase their yield from $3,000 to $5,000 per tonne, and for a fraction of the cost of satellite imaging.
Oaklands strawberry farm director John Allen is excited about the benefits of the technology: “[Infestations] can do a lot of damage, so to find that five days earlier…could save thousands of dollars”.
Ecology: achieving a synergistic picture
Drones are increasingly being employed in the race to save our environment.
Dr Arko Lucieer, Associate Professor in Remote Sensing at the University of Tasmania, has invested in drones worth over $60,000 to monitor the health of native flora. “Linking ground, air and satellite data leads to a much better understanding of ecologically meaningful properties”, says Lucieer.
Wildlife populations can also benefit, says conservation ecologist Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh from the University of Adelaide. Koh is tracking yellow-footed wallabies in South Australia, where drones can cover large areas more efficiently than ground-based mapping and for lower costs than manned aircraft.
Natural disaster alerts: protection from fires, floods and storms
Sophisticated data engines to improve bushfire and flood forecasting are in the works. The Resilient Information Systems project combines satellite and drone data in a decentralised information network with enhanced bushfire prediction capabilities. Another CRC project is creating highly accurate 3D maps of the Clarence River, which will lead to better flood evacuation plans.
Drones could even prevent blackouts due to fallen power lines. Inspecting vegetation in power line corridors costs Ergon Energy $80 million per year, costs which would be slashed by optimised UAVs .
Ball sees “massive potential in drones as part of business and economic growth”, as well as benefits for the community and environment.
Disruption can mean a lot of things. Dictionary definitions include “a forcible separation” or division into parts. More recently it has come to mean a radical change in industry or business. This brings to mind huge technological innovations. But what if it’s as simple as realising that a handheld device for detecting nitrogen could also be used to gauge how much feed there is in a paddock; that drones can be adapted to measure pest infestations; that communities can proactively track the movement of feral animals.
These are just some of the projects that Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are working on that have the capacity to change crop and livestock outcomes in Australia, improve our environment and advance our financial systems.
Data and environment
Mapping pest threats
Invasive animals have long been an issue in Australia. But a program developed by the Invasive Animals CRC called FeralScan is taking advantage of the widespread use of smartphones to combat this problem.
The program involves an app that enables landholders to share information about pest animals and the impacts they cause to improve local management programs.
Peter West, FeralScan project coordinator at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, says the team wouldn’t have thought of a photo-sharing app without genuine community consultation.
The project has been running for six years and can record sightings, impacts and control activities for a wide range of pest species in Australia, including rabbits, foxes, feral cats, cane toads and myna birds. West says that it now has 70,000 records and photographs, and more than 14,000 registered users across the country.
“For regional management of high-impacting pest species, such as wild dogs, what we’re providing is a tool that can help farmers and biosecurity stakeholders detect and respond quickly to pest animal threats,” says West.
“It enables them to either reprioritise where they are going to do control work or to sit down and work with other regional partners: catchment groups, local biosecurity authorities and the broader community.”
The app won the Environment and Energy Minister’s award for a Cleaner Environment in the field of Research and Science excellence at the Banksia Foundation 2016 Awards in December. Recent improvements to the app include the ability to monitor rabbit bio-control agents.Plans for the future include upgrading the technology to alert farmers to nearby pest threats, says West.
Also in the information space, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC (BNHCRC) is investigating reasons we don’t pay attention to or ignore messages that notify us of an impending fire or floods. Researchers are using theories of marketing, crisis communications and advertising to create messaging most likely to assist people to get out of harm’s way.
“The way we personally assess risk has a big impact on how we interpret messages. If I have a higher risk tolerance I will probably underestimate risk,” says Vivienne Tippett, BNHCRC project lead researcher and professor at Queensland University of Technology. “We’ve worked with many emergency services agencies to assist them to reconstruct their messages.”
Instead of an emergency message with a brief heading, followed by the agency name and then a quite technical paragraph about weather conditions and geography, Tippett’s team has worked on moving the key message up to the top and translating it into layperson terms. For example, a message might now say something like: “This is a fast-moving, unpredictable fire in the face of strong winds.”
Tippett’s team is constantly working with emergency services to make sure their findings are made use of as quickly as possible. “The feedback from the community is that yes, they understand it better and they would be more likely to comply” she says.
The Plant Biosecurity CRC is using unmanned aerial systems (UAS or drones) to improve ways to detect pest infestations in vast crops. Project leader Brian McCornack is based at the Kansas State University in the US.
“The driver for using unmanned aerial systems has been in response to a need to improve efficiency [reduce costs and increase time] for surveillance activities over large areas, given limited resources,” says McCornack. “The major game-changer is the affordability of existing UAS technology and sophisticated sensors.”
The project is now in its third year and adds an extra layer of data to the current, more traditional system, which relies on a crop consultant making a visual assessment based on a small sample area of land, often from a reduced vantage point.
The international collaboration between the US and the Australian partners at QUT, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the NSW Department of Primary Industries means the project has access to a wide range of data on species of biosecurity importance.
The CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI) has also been working on repurposing an existing gadget, in this case to improve the accuracy of estimating pasture biomass. Currently, graziers use techniques such as taking height measurements or eyeballing to determine how much feed is available to livestock in a paddock. However, such techniques can result in huge variability in estimates of pasture biomass, and often underestimate the feed-on-offer.
Professor David Lamb, leader of the Biomass Business project, says graziers underestimate green pasture biomass by around 50%. There could be a huge potential to improve farm productivity by getting these measures right.
Through case studies conducted on commercial farms in Victoria, Meat and Livestock Australia found that improving feed allocation could increase productivity by 11.1%, or up to $96 per hectare on average, for sheep enterprises, and 9.6% ($52 per hectare) for cattle enterprises.
The CRCSI and Meat and Livestock Australia looked at a number of devices that measure NDVI (the normalised difference vegetation index), like the Trimble Green Seeker® and the Holland Crop Circle®. The data collected by these devices can then be entered into the CRCSI app to provide calibrated estimates of green pasture biomass.
Graziers can also create their own calibrations as they come to understand how accurate, or inaccurate, their own estimates have been. These crowd-sourced calibrations can be shared with other graziers to increase the regional coverage of calibrations for a range of pasture types throughout the year.
In July 2016, the federal government announced funding for a partner project “Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture”. The Data to Decisions Cooperative Research Centre (D2D CRC) has partnered with all 15 rural research and development corporations (RDCs) on the project.
“The goal of the project is to help producers use big data to make informed on-farm decisions to drive profitability,” says D2D CRC lead Andrew Skinner.
He says that while the project may not provide concrete answers to specific data-related questions, it will provide discussion projects for many issues and concerns that cross different rural industries, such as yield optimisation and input efficiencies.
Collaboration between the 15 RDCs is a first in Australia and has the potential to reveal information that could shape a gamut of agricultural industries. “Having all the RDCs come together in this way is unique,” says Skinner.
The Capital Markets CRC, in conjunction with industry, has developed a system that allows it to issue and circulate many digital currencies, securely and with very fast processing times – and because it is a first mover in this space, has the potential to be a global disruptor.
Digi.cash is a spinoff of the Capital Markets CRC and is specifically designed for centrally issued money, like national currencies.
“Essentially we have built the printing press for electronic coins and banknotes, directly suited to issuing national currencies in digital form, as individual electronic coins and banknotes that can be held and passed on to others,” says digi.cash founder Andreas Furche.
A currency in digi.cash’s system is more than a balance entry in an accounts database, it is an actual encrypted note or coin. The act of transfer of an electronic note itself becomes the settlement. This is in contrast to legacy systems, where transaction ledgers are created that require settlement in accounts. So there is no settlement or clearing period.
“We have a advantage globally because we were on the topic relatively early and we have a group of people who have built a lot of banking and stock exchange technologies in the past, so we were able to develop a product which held up to the IT securities standards used in banking right away,” says Furche.
Digi.cash is currently operating with a limit of total funds on issue of $10 million. It is looking to partner with industry players and be in a leading position in the development of the next generation financial system, which CMCRC says will be based on digitised assets.
Passive radar, as developed by the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST), has been around for some time, but is being refined and re-engineered in an environment where radiofrequency energy is much more common.
As recognition of the disruptive capabilities of this technology, the Passive Radar team at DST was recently accepted into the CSIRO’s innovation accelerator program, ON Accelerate.
Active radar works by sending out a very large blast of energy and listening for reflections of that energy, but at the same time it quickly notifies anyone nearby of the transmitter’s whereabouts.
“Passive radar is the same thing, but we don’t transmit any energy – we take advantage of the energy that is already there,” explains passive radar team member James Palmer.
The technology is being positioned as a complement for active radar. It can be used where there are more stringent regulations around radar spectrum – such as the centre of a city as opposed to an isolated rural area. Radio spectrum is also a finite resource and there is now so much commercial demand that the allocation for Defence is diminishing.
Although the idea of passive radar is not a new one – one of the first radar presentations in the 1930s was a passive radar demonstration – the increase in radiofrequency energy from a variety of sources these days means it is more efficient. For example, signals from digital TV are much more suited to passive radar than analogue TV.
“We are at the point where we are seeing some really positive results and we’ve been developing commercial potential for this technology,” Palmer says. “For a potentially risky job like a radar operator the ability to see what’s around you [without revealing your position], that’s very game changing.”
There is also no need to apply for an expensive spectrum licence. The Australian team is also the first in the world to demonstrate that it can use Pay TV satellites as a viable form of background radiofrequency energy. The company name Silentium Defence Pty Ltd has been registered for the commercial use of the technology.
RRR is in the first 12 month stage of a startup, but we hit the ground running, and are already in good profit. Collaboration is the new competition, so we are living that ideal.
What’s the solution your business provides?
RRR is an advisory company around drone technology, big data management, and geoethics (the ethics around geospatial data). We are providing advice to international clients, state, federal, and local governments, as well as schools, universities, and rangers.
What have been the barriers in growing your business?
One of my biggest problems has been the ability to sit and focus on one particular thing. When establishing your own business and managing your personal brand you tend to say yes to too much, and can risk spreading yourself too thin. I have learned that ‘No’ is a complete sentence.
What expertise have you tapped into to help you in your business journey?
I have been so lucky, as Telstra Business Woman of the Year (Corporate award 2015) that I have been welcomed into such a helpful and excellent alumni. The awards opened up networks for me I could never have imagined. Some of the people I have met have become mentors, sponsors, and even business partners. It has been a game changing experience.
In your opinion, what is the most valuable thing that would support your business the long term?
I am really looking at longer term projects, such as the World of Drones congress that I am a co-creator of; this is going to be a long running and internationally expanding congress. It will allow me to really focus on fewer projects, as I will have sustainable income, and also develop very strong links across industry, so I have more choice about which projects I would like to work on.
What is the one thing you need to keep reminding yourself daily as a start-up going for sustainable growth?
Every day is a school day and I am learning a lot. The key for me is to constantly be learning, reaching, and growing. Looking for the ‘Blue Ocean’ and areas where the niches are either empty, or not created yet. There is a saying, “the best way to predict the future is to create it” and I couldn’t agree more.
Dr Catherine Ball is CEO & Founder of geoethics, big data and drones startup Remote Research Ranges.
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