Smart science: A high-flying future beyond death strikes

Jamie Morton talks to a researcher who sees a world of possibilities for remote-control aircraft

AUT technician Jian Huang and Dan Reader's drone helicopter. Photo / Sarah Ivey
AUT technician Jian Huang and Dan Reader's drone helicopter. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Drones might be best known for their death strikes on Taleban and al-Qaeda hideouts, but their use in the non-military world is spreading rapidly.

Drones have been used for spotting Canadian cannabis crops, catching poachers in Africa, thwarting taggers around German railways and even hunting hurricanes.

Drone users permitted to operate in New Zealand include six firms doing aerial photography and filming, another which checks power pylons for rust and maintenance problems, and a Defence Force-owned drone system used as a targeting system in military areas.

Police also used private companies to operate drones in two criminal investigations last year.

The United States' Federal Aviation Administration says up to 30,000 drones could be in the air by 2020, creating a $110 billion market.

Dan Reader, whose master of engineering degree project at the Auckland University of Technology has resulted in a mini-helicopter capable of autonomous flight, sees uses for drones everywhere.

He envisages drones flying into smoke plumes at coal-fired plants to calculate air quality or zooming over forest fires looking for trapped people.

One French inventor has developed a smartphone-controlled drone which could be of benefit to Kiwis - a robot capable of rounding up sheep and cows.

The mini-helicopter Mr Reader and his research colleagues at AUT have designed - capable of flying up to 10km away from its controller - could also be used to fight fires or help farmers improve yields.

Able to carry an auto sensor that can detect temperature, humidity and chemicals, the drone executes its own orientation and position control with no outside input.

Software designed for its auto pilot programme communicates with an auto-sensor to determine its flight path and speed.

Mr Reader said such a drone would cost only thousands of dollars to build, and its technology meant the power consumed by the processor and auxiliaries was only a fraction of the battery power needed for an i-Phone.

"Ultimately, the trick is getting a turn-key software solution that's easy to use," he said.

"It might cost around $5000 for a really useful one of these drones, but I would think this will come down to under $1000 in the long term."

His supervisor, Associate Professor Loulin Huang, has had approaches from industry and other research institutes to work with him on developing the project commercially.

As for the future of drone technology, Mr Reader said drone "swarms" - which might be used to engulf enemy forces or act as construction teams - had been gathering huge academic interest from around the world.

He says the next step in drone technology is increasing their intelligence - enabling them to independently navigate around structures and deflect attempts to hijack their operating system.

Q&A: Drones

What is it?

Drones - unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or miniature aerial vehicles (MAVs) - are a developing technology that has been used for many purposes all over the world.
Uses have ranged from targeting militants, poachers and marijuana growers to making movies and aerial photography. It has been estimated that their market could be worth $110 billion by 2020, far outstripping their value to the military.

What does it mean for me?

While drones offer countless benefits to society, from crime-fighting to flying into places too dangerous for humans, their use has also come under question. The United Nations this year started an investigation into drone warfare and targeted killings, and the United States has rejecting its strikes have caused many civilian deaths. In New Zealand, drones have raised issues over privacy and regulation, and a government working group is developing policy and identifying risks.

The series

Monday: The flu and us: The Shivers Project

Tuesday: What lies beneath: Mapping our underground

Wednesday: Secrets of the ice part one - Life in Antarctica

Thursday: Secrets of the ice part two - Unlocking Antarctica's past

- NZ Herald

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