by Byron Connolly

Firefighting, mining sectors see future in drones

Feb 28, 20144 mins

The Australian firefighting and mining sectors are showing interest in using drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for a range of applications.

At a hearing of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs today, Richard Alder, GM at the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council said the sector was very interested in the technology and was keen to work with industry and regulatory authorities.

Some firefighting organisations are already operating drones including the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade, which has used unmanned vehicles in the past few days to help fight the Hazelwood coal pit fire.

Drones can be used by fire crews to gather information during an emergency to help firefighters make tactical decisions. This may include providing information to support the provision of warnings to the community, deliver suppressant or retardant materials to extinguish fires or simply assist a firefighter or incident commander to see over trees, he said.

“We are looking at [using UAVs] in situations where there are repetitive tasks, potentially dangerous tasks and dirty tasks,” he said.

“We need to take a very measured approach to this – there is some hype around the possibilities that can be offered and we need to look very clearly at whether these sort of capabilities are offering something that’s safer, more efficient or more effective than what we currently do and the capabilities we have through crude aircraft.”

UAVs are also being used by the mining industry, Chris James, assistant director, workforce skills at the Minerals Council of Australia told the committee.

He said although drone use wasn’t widespread at the moment, some mining companies were testing the machines for stock pile surveying, environmental scanning, fire monitoring, pit mapping, spare parts transportation, and infrastructure assessments.

Privacy was not an issue for mining at the moment because there are “many cameras around a mine site anyway,” said James.

Alder said the firefighter sector has 50,000 paid employees and 250,000 volunteers, many of whom will be interested in using drones.

“We are very concerned to make sure that as things develop, those UAVs are operated safely and legally. We’ll need to give consistent guide to our organisation to make sure they can do that,” he said.

“Privacy is a developing concern because the nature of the areas in which we operate – it’s been less of a practical issue but it’s something we do need to take account of in the future.”

The committee asked Peggy MacTavish, executive director of the Australian Association of Unmanned Systems, to explain how the organisation deals with privacy issues.

“We advise them with respect to duty of care, understanding the law and being apprised of what the current law is,” said MacTavish.

“If we feel that perhaps their activities would not be in anyone’s best interest, we advise them to … make sure they understand what they are doing before they do.

“That goes hand-in-hand with insurance, privacy and liability issues and we do stress with the operators that they have duty of care and responsibility.”

The CSIRO has been using drones since 1999 for research in survey activities where cameras need to be placed above experiments such as crop monitoring. Drones are also used to count rubbish on beaches, bushfire spread experiments, and monitoring of ground-based robots from the air.

“We’ve also used them for testing equipment that we put an animals that we are monitoring – so we are monitoring flying foxes as they are flying around, trying to understand how they fly,” the organisation’s Dr Jonathan Roberts told the committee.

“Sensors get placed on the flying foxes but to test those out we use unmanned aircraft, which pretend to be flying foxes so we can test the equipment before we put it on the real animals so we can minimise the experiments on real animals.”

Privacy hasn’t been an issue as the research is conducted in controlled or remote areas, he said.

A committee member raised the issue of a drone inadvertently taking footage while being used for commercial or scientific purposes: “It might be a farmer kissing his wife on the back porch … that may inadvertently be recorded.

(“It might be more of a concern if he was kissing someone other than his wife,” another committee member responded.)

The Minerals Council of Australia’s James said one way to deal with this situation would be to disclose to all parties that you are using unmanned aerial vehicles.

“The feeling among our companies is that it’s not a major issue because there’s a lot of CCTV on site anyway for various reasons, generally to do with safety and that’s rightly disclosed.”

Regardless, he admitted that the issue is still a “regulatory black hole.”