A bird’s eye view on the future of drones

23 Apr 2018 10:28 AM | Jordan Dempster (Administrator)

This article is a republishing of one printed in the August 2017 issue of our Network magazine.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, remotely piloted aircraft system – whatever you want to call them (and those names do have slightly different meanings), there’s no doubt that most people just call them drones.

In the not too distant past, the term drone conjured up images of a missile laden aircraft circling over a combat zone. Now though, as they have become more commercially available, the drone is starting to change the way we interact with the world around us.

The Autumn GIS and IRM conference featured drones heavily, but the fascinating aspect was the many different perspectives presented by our speakers. To give an overview of the latest thinking and applications for the ever-growing number of remotely piloted systems, we bring you the highlights from three of these expert speakers.

Drones in the disaster zone

In the hours after a disaster hits, getting a clear picture of the situation is crucial. For New Zealand Fire Service’s Craig MacAlpine, the Edgecumbe flooding in early-April demonstrated the power of drone imagery.

As he ran through the presentation at conference, the high-resolution images of the flood zone were quite stunning, with the audience clearly able to see where the barriers broke as the water surged through. Just as surprising was the fact that he had the drone with him, in a pouch that could’ve been mistaken for a DSLR camera bag.

Available for just a few thousand dollars at an electronics store near you, this drone was just a test run for the Fire Service, but it certainly proved the worth of drones. The team were able to set the drone’s course, and let it go, as it set about documenting the flood zone from the air.

Carried out over several days, and overlaid onto spatial maps, this gave the emergency response team the ability to see detailed imaging of the area, and how the situation changed over time. With new, bigger drones on the way, the Fire Service is looking at much bigger range of applications, including the placement of FLIR cameras to identify hotspots after wildfires.

That’s fantastic, but there are some important considerations to make when using drones. The key one is data. What are you wanting to use it for, and how are you going to transfer it? When you find yourself in the field, with limited internet connectivity, transferring several gigabytes of image files is not always the easiest. Getting low-resolution data out quickly is doable, but the detailed images will take longer. So take this into consideration when looking at how you’ll use your drone.

The drone data deluge

Speaking of data, Dr Catherine Ball believes that drones are just the platform. The real excitement comes with the information they gather, but we must be prepared to handle the fire hose of data these devices can produce. In other words, the data is where you find the “power and the pain”.

If local government starts to get into drones, and there is every indication that will happen (you may have already started), then having a way to store, manage, and archive this will be critical. It can also bring a lot of benefits for the council, with data available to be sold to commercial companies, or provided to ratepayers as a goodwill gesture, especially in rural areas.

The collection of this data also sends us flying into a potential minefield – that of geo-ethics. Just because we can collect data doesn’t mean we should, and we do, it needs to be done with consideration to the owners of the land. This is especially important in New Zealand, as councils respect the right of private land owners, and partner with tangata whenua.

Emergency situations also provide an occasion for getting tangled in the ethics of drones, as we weigh the balance of getting excellent and valuable imaging, with the potential of invading the privacy of those on the ground who may be injured or dead.

Before you think it’s not all doom and gloom, be assured that the future of drones is a bright one. Dr Ball has a passion for involving drones in humanitarian purposes. Some innovative uses include checking coral bleaching on the great barrier reef, and locating feral pigs in Northern Territory to help indigenous rangers bait and hunt them in a safer, more effective way.

To finish on a quote from Dr Ball, “If you use the right drone and the right payload, you can get unbiased, beautiful data.”

Drones and AR: For when normal reality just isn’t good enough

Knowing what you want to do with drone data has been mentioned several times as a key consideration. If you ask Simon Yorke from Aurecon, the question is closer to ‘what haven’t you done with drone data?’

An experimenter with emerging technologies, Simon and his team have one foot squarely in the future. Perhaps the most impressive example is the modelling work conducted on the massive slip in Sumner, caused by the 2011 earthquake. You’ve probably seen images of the slip – the road lined by shipping containers to protect traffic from falling rocks.

Managing the slip, and getting a good idea of how it was changing, was a challenge for the geologists. That’s where the drones came in. After creating a 3D map of the slip, Aurecon deployed a drone to snap every possible angle of the slip, with a level of detail that allowed you to see the marks where the diggers had scraped the soil.

Next, these images were overlaid on a 3D map, giving the geologists access to an unprecedented detail. Not only did they find new things about the slip they hadn’t known, they also got to see the site as it changed, and carry out regular rockfall simulations.

That’s not where it ended though. Using Microsoft’s HoloLens technology, the map was viewable in augmented reality (AR), allowing the map to be projected onto a flat surface, so people could walk around it, examine it from all angles, and zoom right into an extreme level of detail.

This is just one aspect of the work they are doing, and there are plenty more amazing things on the horizon. The team are now experimenting with spatial sound. Take the example of an AR map designed to show contractors where pipes, powerlines, and other crucial services are located. As you move around the map, or zoom in, you will hear the chirp of birds on the power lines or the gurgle of water rushing through pipes, all working to immerse you in sound and provide aural feedback to your actions.

We are still in the early days of drones, and this can be an exciting time as people experiment with new and innovative uses. However, as our speakers remind us, there are many aspects – from safety to ethics – that we need to consider before our unmanned companions take to the sky.

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