Written by Dr Karen Joyce, She Maps Education Director and James Cook University Academic
I have been flying drones for about five years now. Over that time I have seen the technology progress so rapidly it has really blown me away. What was once regarded as primarily a military asset is now available in my local JB HiFi and Harvey Norman at a price point that hard working teenagers can meet by saving their pocket money! But that’s not to say that the military intent or capability is what is advertised or commercially available. Mostly they are just flying cameras. Tripods (or quadpods to be correct) with wings.
I was an Engineer in the Australian Army so I am well aware of how the military uses drones. And I understand that not everyone agrees with their use in the battlespace. That’s ok, but it doesn’t mean that that is the only way the technology is deployed. I love talking to people about how I use drones as part of my research, as for many it is a real eye opener. I have lost count of the number of times that people have said ‘wow, I had no idea you could use them for that!’ So what exactly is ‘that’? What do I use my drones for?
As a geographer and environmental scientist, I use cameras on drones to map and monitor the environment around us. They help me see our precious ecosystems, monitor their health, and understand changes over time. Largely my work is on the Great Barrier Reef. Have you heard of coral bleaching? Well drones are one of the best tools we can use to map exactly where this is happening. Can you believe that we have nearly 3,000 reefs within the Great Barrier Reef, yet we don’t even know how much live coral we have on them? I am using my drones to help answer this question (have a look at my recent TEDx for more information).
What about the farmer who came to me to ask if I could find a better way to know how many mangoes he has on his trees? He needs to know this so that he can order the correct number of trucks to take his fruit to market. With an underestimate, his mangoes rot on the ground. With an overestimate, there is an oversupply of trucks and they leave the farm empty. Either way, he loses money. So imagine counting all the mangoes! But what if I flew my drone to capture photos of his farm, and then taught the computer to recognize fruit on the trees? I can also quickly check the health of all his trees at the same time. Drones are revolutionizing precision agriculture!
These are just two of the projects that I’m working on, but they don’t even scrape the surface of a field that we know as ‘drones for good’. Did you know that we can use drones for tracking earthquakes and fault lines like Tamarah King does with the University of Melbourne? What about how the Red Cross is looking to use drones to deliver vaccines or provide aid to remote communities? Or how Jackie Dujmovic from Hover UAV monitors Newcastle beaches to keep swimmers safe from sharks? Lady Ga Ga, Disney, and Cirque de Soleil get in on the action too with what I like to call ‘dronetainment’ light shows – forget fireworks! And did you know that the International Space Station is actually a drone?
I sometimes feel that drones are a technology that people tout as either something that’s incredible and going to solve every problem there ever was, or an evil beast that kills or invades privacy. I think the reality falls somewhere in between. There is a time and place where they certainly are amazing, though they are not the tool for every job. And sure, there are safety concerns – we need to treat drones with respect, and undertake the appropriate level of training before taking flight. As far as privacy goes – these things aren’t quiet. They can’t exactly sneak up on you. It’s also illegal to fly closer than 30 m to someone, or over the top of them, so feel free to report to the authorities if you feel this has been breached. Like any camera or observational device, they fall under Australia’s privacy laws. But I think there are plenty of other types of camera / sensor fixtures that pose more of a threat to your privacy than a drone.
So should we be worried about teaching our children about drones? Do we remove knives from the kitchen because they can also be used in conflict? Let’s share the good news stories and focus on educating people as to the positive aspects of drone technology instead.