Drones to become common in regional Australia: Ninox Robotics

This post originally appeared on http://www.afr.com/technology/drones-to-become-common-in-regional-australia-ninox-robotics-20160619-gpmji0.

 

[Editor’s Note: Ninox Robotics is working on a variety of projects including counting kangaroos and monitoring gas pipelines.]

Ninox Robotics managing director Marcus Ehlrich says drones will become widely adopted in regional Australia. Supplied

If Marcus Ehlrich’s vision is correct, drones could become a common sight in regional Australia, but don’t expect to have your mail delivered by an unmanned aircraft anytime soon.

The managing director of Sydney-based start-up Ninox Robotics, Mr Ehlrich says drones have huge potential for the agricultural, government, mining and utilities sectors.

But he says there are too many regulatory and safety issues surrounding city airspace for Amazon and Australia Post’s plans to deliver parcels by drone to be anything but futuristic on a large scale at this stage.

“If you have a pilot in the loop controlling the drones, then the cost of delivering a product with a drone, compared to a man in a van, is very similar, so what’s the point?” he said.

“If you want it to be automated, you’d need a bunch of drones running through already busy airspace and an area with lots of buildings and people. [To do this] you’re talking about a lot of money and research and development, so I’m not surprised it’s only the largest companies in the world having a crack at it, but I can’t see it happening any time soon.”

Ninox Robotics, which is the first civilian company in the world that’s been able to buy military-grade Israeli drones, has secured its first three paying trials with Biosecurity Queensland, LogiCamms and Southern Downs Regional Council.

Mr Ehlrich said if the trials go well, the contracts would turn into ongoing work.

“In each one the drones do a different thing, which is indicative of the multi-purpose nature of our system,” he said.

“For the Southern Downs Regional Council, we’re using the drones’ dual thermal optical camera to detect pests in real time, like feral pigs and dogs. For Biosecurity Queensland, it’s a conservation and research angle, we’re seeing if the drones can do macropod count transactions, where we’re seeing if it can count kangaroos.”

With LogiCamms the business is testing the efficiency of a drone going over a gas pipeline to meet the regulatory requirements of monitoring the pipeline.

Improved efficiency

Outside of these functions, Mr Ehlrich also sees opportunities to collaborate with firefighting agencies in bushfire season to use drones in a controlled, collaborative manner to provide real-time information on the development of the fire, to guide emergency actions.

“It makes complete sense for a country like Australia to invest in this,” he said.

“There is a reason why the Israeli military use drones so much for surveillance … they’re very efficient at covering large amounts of ground and sending back data. The same principles apply … you can use the system efficiently and cost-effectively to do the dangerous work that would otherwise be done by humans.”

With each new contract Ninox Robotics wins, it has to seek approval from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to conduct flights in the proposed area.

“It’s a big hurdle to jump and you to have be highly capable, well-financed and have good clients which can justify the costs, which is why we’re focusing on government, agriculture, mining and power companies and gas pipelines,” Mr Ehlrich said.

Some of the regulatory complexity is because Ninox Robotics’ drones are able to fly beyond the 500 metre visual line of sight. They’ve also been granted a licence to fly above 123m.

The infra-red technology built into the drones also means that they can be used at night. For farmers this means the drones will detect pests based on their heat signatures and this data is transmitted back to a team on the ground, which can make a decision whether or not act on the data.

Currently the company has one “system”, which incorporates two former drone operators from the Israeli military and three drones, but it expects to expand its team as it brings on more clients.

Unlike Amazon, which has blasted regulators in the United States for failing to update its laws at the same pace as drone technology has developed, Mr Ehlrich was complimentary of CASA and said he approved of the “safety first” approach to legislation.

“The process will speed up if the federal government provide the resources to CASA to allow this to become part of the Australian economy,” he said.

“If you have to put in area approvals every time a drone goes beyond the line of sight, that means there need to be staff at CASA to process these approvals.”

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