"We're entering the Drone Age." So says Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and a man who fancies himself as the Steve Jobs of the drones.
The gap between the hobby aircraft and the small-sized commercial [drones] ... is getting smaller and smaller.
Australia entered the Drone Age in 2002, when it became the first country to introduce legislation covering unmanned aerial vehicles, leading the world in creating rules governing civilian use of the technology.
A view of the future ... researcher from the University of Tasmania trialling a drone.
Drones have since been employed by real estate agents, miners, marketers, environmental surveyors, even lifeguards.
The same technology that has powered rapid advancements in smartphones - including accelerometers, gyroscopes, optics, GPS, fast embedded processors, wireless, batteries - has also led to an explosion in inexpensive drones for hobbyists and researchers. Even the most basic models can fly by remote control or autonomously, navigating using GPS and recording high-definition video.
Mr Anderson compares the potential of the drone revolution to the rise of personal computers since the late 1970s.
A researcher from the University of Tasmania trialling a drone.
He said that when PCs were first released, people did not know what to do with them, but the technology developed over time through the advent of word processors, spreadsheets, video games, email and the web.
“There will be good uses and bad ones, but the same is true of any tool, from a crowbar to an ultrasound machine,” Mr Anderson wrote in Wired.
“Ultimately the way society best figures out how to think about a powerful new technology, is to set it free and watch where it flies.”
Flying drones in action
A closer look at some of the applications for flying drones.
Everything you need to build a professional-level drone can be bought on the web. The simplest ready-made drones, such as Parrot AR.Drone 2, are controlled by iPhones and iPads and can be bought from toy stores for $350 and hacked to add more advanced features.
Hobbyists do not need a licence to fly drones, but the Civil Aviation Safety Authority certifies commercial drone pilots with rigorous testing and knowledge requirements similar to that of a private pilot's licence.
The CSIRO has partnered Queensland University of Technology to create the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation. Since 2005 they have been developing and testing drones from a purpose-built building at Brisbane Airport.
Darren Turner from the School of Geography and Environmental Studies with an UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). Photo: Peter Mathew
The research centre is particularly concerned with using drones for search and rescue, and Dr Roberts said had drones been able to mobilise during last year's Queensland floods, they could have played a critical role.
They are able to fly for long periods of time and in places that are dangerous for manned aircraft, while they also have inbuilt smarts to conduct flood mapping and damage assessments. There is even talk of using them to deliver aid to remote communities.
“It might be getting very close to structures like inspecting cooling towers or under bridges - all those difficult to get places where it's too dangerous to put a person in an aircraft,” said Dr Roberts.
“A great example is using [drones] to look for weeds through rainforest in Australia, ... currently with manned helicopters, if you have an engine failure over a rainforest there's nowhere to land easily, and there's been a number of incidents in Australia where manned helicopters ... have actually hit power lines and people have been injured.”
The research centre runs an international competition called the Outback Rescue Challenge where drone enthusiasts come from around the world to try to locate a lost person and drop life-saving supplies to them.
“The gap between the hobby aircraft and the small-sized commercial [drones] ... is getting smaller and smaller,” said Duncan Campbell, director of the centre.
In 2010 Murdoch University's cetacean research unit enlisted the help of Boeing subsidiary Insitu Pacific to investigate the potential for drones in surveying marine mammals. Drones were found to be a cheaper, safer, more effective method than manned aircraft.
In December last year the Queensland government commissioned tests of drones for monitoring illegal fishing and trawling.
In July Mining Australia reported that drones have been used to survey and monitor mines in Queensland and Western Australia.
University of Tasmania researchers are running a project called TerraLuma that is developing drones to monitor the environment at ultra-high resolutions on-demand. “We fly several planes and OktoKopters, which are super stable [drones] with GPS and autopilot navigation and a stabilised camera mount,” said Stephen Harwin, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania who focuses on drones.
“We fly a range of state-of-the-art sensors, such as a laser scanner, a hyperspectral scanner, a thermal sensor, and standard cameras. These small [drones] are the perfect platforms for environmental mapping and aerial surveying and are a far cry from the military "killer" drones which have such a bad reputation.”
The Terra Luma team has already worked on a number of trials of their drones in agriculture and viticulture, mapping and monitoring vegetation in remote locations such as Antarctica, deriving 3D tree structure for forest inventories, landslide mapping and deformation monitoring, assessments of coastal erosion and mapping of geological structures and natural vegetation, such as salt marshes.
Hai Tran, founder of certified drone operator Coptercam, which builds it own drones, said the company did about 10-20 aerial photography jobs a week, about 80 per cent of which were real estate or mining companies wanting pictures of land and developments they wanted to sell.
But his company has also shot TV commercials for state governments, filmed promotional videos and covered sporting events such as the Avon Descent paddle and the Western Mudd Rush in Western Australia.
Australian farmers are using helicopter drones to spray crops and control weeds and drone journalism is poised to take off.
Last year 60 Minutes launched a quadrocopter to record aerial images of the Christmas Island immigration detention centre, before the craft crashed into the sea and the ABC reported that Justin Gong was filing drone news footage from Australia for China's Phoenix TV network.
There are several Australian manufacturers of professional drones, including Cyber Technology, V-Tol Aerospace and ADAM Technology.