Training drones to be friends

By Dr Michelle Dickinson

Drones were one of the most popular tech Christmas presents this year. Photo / Supplied
Drones were one of the most popular tech Christmas presents this year. Photo / Supplied

Drones, the source of that new low buzzing sound coming from your local park, were one of the most popular tech Christmas presents this year. As the new drone owners head out en masse to practise basic flying manoeuvres, the mere thought of a drone still petrifies some people who imagine weapon-holding machines taking down passenger aeroplanes.

Although they are commonly called drones, most of the Christmas present versions are actually quadcopters, which are similar to remote-controlled helicopters but lifted and propelled using four rotors instead of one.

Drones can also be called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and are controlled using a remote unit on the ground which can pair up with satellite maps to fly automatically, using pre-programmed co-ordinates.

The main advantage of drones is they are small and light and can have devices attached to them, including video cameras, thermal sensing devices, life flotation devices and even a boom for spraying crops.

Because of the tight restrictions that other countries, including the US and UK, have on flying commercial drones, New Zealand's more flexible rules gives us the advantage of being a country which can test and advance drone technology to solve industrial problems.

Only a few weeks ago, the Callaghan Innovation C-prize supported by filmmaker James Cameron went to a group of former University of Auckland engineering students who created the VorTech drone, designed to film aerial shots in strong winds, with minimal rotor noise while tracking moving objects automatically.

The film industry is not the only one to benefit from drone technology. Forestry Crown research institute Scion uses drones to survey tree health and pest numbers to help with its biosecurity surveillance and eradication operations. The farming industry has drones able to carry loads over 100kg and spray 8093sq m of farmland in under six minutes, making light work of areas which are difficult to reach using traditional tractors. Farming drones can also be pre-programmed with automated flying routes to monitor stock, find lost sheep, survey weed infiltration and check water infrastructure over large areas of hilly and sometimes snow-covered land.

Drones are also helping our love of the water to be safer .. helping surf lifesavers.

Auckland's wetlands are also getting some high-tech treatment thanks to AUT's Dr Barbara Breen, who has collected high-resolution drone images of the Manukau Harbour and Bethells Beach. The maps of site-specific vegetation and species she created have been able to help Auckland Council remotely monitor weed, possum and rat intrusions to quickly check if eradication treatments are working.

Drones are also helping our love of the water to be safer as Karekare Surf Lifesaving Club trials a surveillance drone this summer to help surf lifesavers keep an eye on swimmers and alert them when people swim outside patrolled areas as well as establish what resources may be needed for potential rescue operations.

Coastguard are also trialling smaller drones which can be launched off the rescue boat to relay information back on where any survivors are in the water, as well as give a better view of what's under the water. They are also trying larger drones named Toroa, which can fly up to 200 nautical miles from land to drop off emergency supplies and life rafts to survivors in weather conditions too severe for many rescue boats.

Civil Aviation Authority guidelines say drones cannot be flown in controlled airspace near airports, over 122m up or out of your visual line of sight, so the chances of a rogue drone causing plane damage are small. But the odds of a big impact on New Zealand's tech economy are huge.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, also known as Nanogirl, is an Auckland University nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science

- NZ Herald

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