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Drone finds dummy 'bushwalker' in world-first

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The missing "bushwalker" Outback Joe.

The missing "bushwalker" Outback Joe.

An unmanned aerial drone was able to find a dummy of a missing bushwalker with no human intervention in what CSIRO believes is a world-first for a non-military drone.

The Outback Rescue Challenge, a competition for developers of "unmanned airbourne vehicles" (UAVs), was held at Kingaroy in Queensland from Monday to Wednesday.

Team Canberra UAV won $10,000 for locating the dummy bushwalker without any human input.

Team Canberra UAV won $10,000 for locating the dummy bushwalker without any human input.

CSIRO researchers say the performance this week by amateur group Canberra UAV means drones could be assisting rescue workers in as little as five years.

Canberra UAV's drone was able to take off and search the entire designated area (about 1.5km by 3km) on its own before locating the dummy, "Outback Joe", about 40 minutes into the flight and beaming back photos to the team.

“There was no human in the loop there, the plane itself found Outback Joe, who was lying in the field in the southern end of the search area,” said Jonathan Roberts, research director at CSIRO's autonomous systems laboratory in Brisbane and a co-founder of the challenge.

Roberts and his team are researching how drones could be used safely in real search-and-rescue missions and during natural disasters, and says this could be as close as five years away thanks to this week's breakthrough.

While last year's winning team was also able to locate the bushwalker, this was not completely autonomous as the team was looking through the camera from the ground and spotted the dummy on their TV screens.

No team actually "won" this year's challenge and the prize of $50,000, because the rules state that the drones must drop a bottle of water to Outback Joe — a feat none of the four search-and-rescue teams achieved. But Canberra UAV was awarded a $10,000 "encouragement award".

“The significance of this one is that the plane itself found the lost bushwalker and that's a very big deal,” said Roberts, adding he believed it was a first in the “civilian world”.

Canberra UAV consists of hobbyists, including an electronics technician, software engineers and communications experts. Team leader Stephen Dade, a satellite communications engineer, said their use of an open-source autopilot — worked on by software engineers all over the world — gave them an edge.

“We're all amateurs; prior to this project none of us had any sort of experience with UAVs or aircraft or autopilots. Over the last two years we taught ourselves everything there is to know about this,” Dade said.

“We're over the moon; we're really, really happy about it.”

About 70 teams started about 18 months ago but only four made it to the start of the competition on Monday.

Teams must submit safety and design documents and show that their craft can fly automatically for at least five hours.

Five teams made it to the final safety checks, but one crashed because it crossed an invisible safety boundary known as a “geo-fence”, leaving four to start the challenge on Tuesday. (CSIRO requirements mean that once aircraft cross the boundary they automatically dive and crash to avoid injuring people).

Compass UAV's drone mysteriously crashed while heading towards the search area, and Roberts said an investigation was ongoing.

A Canadian team called Forward Robotics covered about 65 per cent of the search area but it could not find the dummy because its camera malfunctioned.

Open UAS from the Netherlands thought they were safe after a minor crash the day before, but their drone had internal wing damage and the wing broke off while it was on its way to the search area.

Australia was the first country to introduce legislation covering civilian use of drones in 2002.

The technology is used by surf livesaving clubs during patrols, real estate agents, environmental researchers, government agencies monitoring illegal fishing, mining companies for surveying, and media companies including the Nine Network and News Limited.

There are about 21 organisations licensed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to fly commercial drones around Australia but advances in technology have seen a rise in hobbyists' drones that do not require CASA certification and safety checks.

Last month safety concerns were expressed following incidents at Australian airports, while the Australian Privacy Commissioner has called for a public debate about whether current regulations are sufficient to deal with any misuse of the technology.

39 comments

  • Without wishing to diminish what has been achieved here, it needs to be remembered that there is big difference between locating a real walker lost in real bush and a dummy dressed in high-visibility clothing in an open field restricted to an area of 4.5 square kilometers. I suspect that developments in EPIRB technology might yield better results.

    Commenter
    Frazzle
    Date and time
    October 05, 2012, 2:46PM
    • Well said. Exactly my sentiment.

      Commenter
      Lee
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 3:08PM
    • EPIRBs are good for people who know they are going into a potentially risky scenario. People who become disoriented, accidentally separated from a group, take a wrong turn etc don't tend to have one with them.
      Anyway, you have to crawl before you walk...when a baby makes any of those transitions, its Mum gets justifiably excited. Should Steve Sasson have been excited in 1975 when he took the world's first digital image (in grainy NTSC resolution) on a camera he made from a cassette connected to a CCD imager on a frame of electronics about a foot high. No-one would buy a picture like that, and film of the day produced massively better results. But maybe he could see the possibilities. When did you last have a film developed?
      It wasn't proven technology that put man on the moon, it was imagination that overcame the limitations of existing technology. I think this is great!

      Commenter
      Let them eat cake
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 3:35PM
    • Thermo imaging...? Remember it was just a "dummy"

      Commenter
      1800RICKJONES
      Location
      The Fern
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 3:39PM
    • As another commenter has pointed out, this is early days yet. Getting a computer to automatically do the most simple human tasks (such as identifying a dummy as opposed to a rock or shrub) is extremely difficult.

      This is merely a first step. As the military tech (and funding) trickles into the private sector the drones will only get better at these tasks.

      US military has had drones which can identify an area of disturbed ground beside a road (IEDs) for years now. Can only imagine where the tech is at now, but can't imagine FLIR cameras and other auto-detect functions are too hard to adapt to this function.

      Bravo to the Aussie scientists. pioneers once again.

      Commenter
      mtown
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 3:40PM
    • @let them eat cake
      What you say is true. But my comment was about future developments in EPIRB technology. They are playing a useful role now but could be doing so much more with with developments that are very feasible e.g.
      - Smaller, Lighter, Cheaper - everyone could have one
      - Automatic activation - either by intelligently inferring that a bushwalker needs help or by remote activation - much better to have a device tell us where a casualty is than spend time looking.

      The difficulty with a drone using image recognition is that in a real situation it will rarely have an image of the complete person, and if the individual is trying to assist searches with smoke. symbols with stones or whatever, simply looking for an image of a human may not produce results, especially from the air.

      I'm not suggesting drone technology is without value, simply commenting that alternatives might prove more beneficial.

      Commenter
      Frazzle
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 4:28PM
    • @let them eat cake
      Perhaps people going into harsh areas should be coerced somehow into carrying EPIRBS?
      Not wise if serious to go without so perhaps amateurs/beginners need a kick?

      Commenter
      Biscuits are Better
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 8:30PM
    • @Frazzle. Hey Fraz, it was experiment using a dummy. Have you ever used an EPIRB? I've got one which can just send an OK message to a designated mate or full on SOS! Now hopefully you won't venture out bush where there are a lot of trees e.g. rainforest because the EPIRB won't help one bit. Now you probably have not done much bush walking but if you have then you should know that it's a good idea to bring something very brightly coloured e.g. silver survival sheet or even a cheap bright poncho. If you go bush then you must tell someone where about's you intend to go and when you'll come back.
      Anyway, why not combine the two technologies and have an EPIRB that can guide itself ( or by yourself) through and up the tree canopy with a small DRONE so that the signal can actually reach the satellites. There is a small DRONE that could carry such a payload and be controlled by your iPhone. It already comes with a built in camera viewable on the iPhone. It's about $370 from the Apple store. I don't know if the thing is able to self navigate up through the canopy but it already has some programmable navigation features I believe. Now there's and idea. Dang, why not stick a metal detector on it and hover along the beaches. Careful of the fun police as they might think you're a voyeur or something. " Sorry osifer, I lost control there for awhile..." DO NOT RELY ON EPIRB. Rely on yourself first and don't be a dummy Fraz.

      Commenter
      Taipan
      Location
      Invergowrie
      Date and time
      October 06, 2012, 6:18PM
    • At first read I thought they were using a pollie as the search target. Glad it was clarified as was a real dummy.

      Commenter
      ArghONaught
      Date and time
      October 07, 2012, 9:19AM
    • An EPIRB would not have been much use to 4 year old Riley Martin who was lost this week.

      Commenter
      bondiben
      Date and time
      October 07, 2012, 9:21AM

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