Expert Dr Catherine Ball says the way we currently use drones is only scratching the surface of what they can do for us.
When luxury Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana sent a bunch of drones down the runway of its Milan show in February this year, the fashion world was aghast. Flying robots carrying the brand’s jewel-encrusted leather handbags?
While millennial fashion models might have felt cause for concern, across the globe in Brisbane, environmental scientist Catherine Ball was celebrating the unexpected use of drones.
“It got me very excited,” she said.
“Here was a collaboration between fashion design, creativity and drones used in a scenario that you would never have thought of.”
A world leader in drone research, Ball is fascinated by the future of the technology, which stretches well beyond the world of fashion. She will be sharing her insights in a panel discussion at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference (AEC).
The production of drones for personal and commercial use is growing rapidly. Data from research and advisory company Gartner predicts the global drone market will be valued at $US11.2 billion by 2020.
Ball has delivered a number of world-firsts in environmental and infrastructure surveying using drones, monitoring bushfires, coral reefs, and collecting a range of data to assist in effective ecological and engineering processes.
She sees drones as an efficient tool for translating patterns of nature in remote locations. Her breakthrough project occurred in 2014 while working with engineering and environmental consultancy URS (now AECOM) when she flew human-sized drones to track turtle habitats along the coast of Western Australia.
They spotted an endangered oceanic manta ray species not seen in many years, and she was promoted to regional lead for unmanned aerial systems. She was also awarded Telstra Woman of the Year (Corporate) in 2015 for her work in drone research.
Ball has a PhD in microbial ecology and is currently the managing director of Elemental Strategy, where she consults to government and private industry on the adoption of technology, such as drones. Ball also works with She Flies, which promotes gender equality in science, technology, engineering, the arts and maths (STEAM) careers.
Drones to the rescue
A love of nature was fostered while watching David Attenborough documentaries as a child. However, Ball’s initial interest in the environment was sparked at the age of five when she saw a television program about the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.
“It’s one of my earliest memories,” she said.
“I remember being quite shocked by it.”
Ball said the current application of drone technology represents the mere tip of the iceberg.
“The idea that we can use drones to get to places and people faster to save lives is really floating my boat,” she said.
“I am excited about how drones are developing outside of the data collection aspect. Some of the humanitarian projects that really excite me involve delivery of blood or drugs or transporting a human organ when needed through a congested city via drones.
“It’s happening in parts of Africa already, and I feel like it should also be happening here in Australia. It’s something we’re looking at, particularly in Queensland. How can we support our remote and regional communities with this kind of technology? Australia is probably the best place in the world to fly a drone.
“We were the first to have commercial drone legislation in 2002, and a lot of other countries look at the Australian model in terms of space regulation. It’s the best place in the world to be a drone scientist.”
Ball also sees drones having an impact on future engineering processes such as data visualisation.
“You can process the data, put it in 3D, stamp the different spectral signatures and walk around inside a virtual reality system without actually having to be on location,” she said.
“The high-resolution nature of the data means that you can look for things in ways that you wouldn’t normally and visit places without having to set foot in them.”
More than selfies
Ball is also inspired by the rise of wearable drones. Gartner’s research shows the personal drone market grew by an estimated 34.3 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, and Ball believes these pocket-sized machines will be increasingly valuable in gathering vital data.
“Imagine having a little wearable selfie drone and you come across something that’s broken or an accident has happened or there’s a flood level that needs to be checked,” she said.
“Yes, there might be some rather silly uses for wearable drones, but having a geotagged photograph to help somebody in an incident is also something worth thinking about. I always like to take it back to a genuine humanitarian opportunity.”
Dr Catherine Ball will be a speaker at the Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To learn more and to register, click here.