Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I’m Glen Paul. The Annual
Outback Rescue Challenge was recently held, and again placed developers of
unmanned airborne vehicles, or UAV’s, into competition to find a missing
As in previous years, the outback is near Kingaroy
Airport in Queensland, and the missing bushwalker is a mannequin, but the
unmanned airborne vehicles are very real, and becoming more sophisticated with
each competition. This year that led to a world first for a non-military drone.
Joining me on the line to discuss the Outback Rescue
Challenge is its co-founder, CSIRO’s Doctor Jonathan Roberts. Jonathan was
there a clearly defined winner, and what was this world first?
Dr Roberts: Yeah, there was – there was. We had four teams that passed
the final safety checks and actually took off and went to go and find the
mannequin, who we call ‘Outback Joe’, and there was a clear first place team,
but as in previous years, unfortunately no team actually got the grand prize.
So for this competition we have $50,000 on offer for the team that can launch
their aircraft into the search arena, find Outback Joe, drop a water bottle to
Outback Joe, and recover their aircraft back at the airport.
This year, though, we did have a first. We had a team
called Canberra UAV, who are a group of amateurs, and hobbyists, and open source
software developers, they had a very impressive setup, and they actually managed
to automatically find Outback Joe, so they launched their aircraft into the
search area, searched for about 35, 40 minutes, and then the aircraft amazingly
reported back that it had found Outback Joe, and some little pictures of Outback
Joe appeared on the screen at the ground station, it was all very exciting, and
they’d found him.
Unfortunately, and the reason they didn’t win the
$50,000 was because sort of about ten minutes into the flight their water bottle
actually detached from the aircraft in an unintended time, and in an
uncontrolled manner, so they didn’t actually have a water bottle to drop, and
then when it came off the aircraft it slightly damaged the aircraft as well, so
there were complicating factors. So they were close, but it was not to be this
Glen Paul: Hmm, but at least there was still this world’s first of where
the aircraft was able to find him without human involvement. How did the plane
itself achieve that?
Dr Roberts: So, the aircraft has got onboard a camera, colour camera,
looking down. We tell the teams beforehand, and this is detailed in the rules,
that roughly what the bushwalker will be wearing, so they actually use that
information to help find them. So the bushwalker wears blue jeans, sort of
brown work boots, and one of those highly reflective worker’s shirts, and we use
a bright yellow one.
And so they use that information then to program a
little computer onboard the aircraft, where the video stream is going from the
camera that’s looking down. And the team that won, they actually were looking
for blue things, so they were looking for the jeans, so as they were flying
around, and they’d done some analysis, and they determined that blue things
aren’t that common in the natural environment, so they had a little algorithm
onboard looking for blue things. They know roughly how big Outback Joe is,
because it’s a human mannequin, they know how high they’re flying, so they can
figure out roughly how big an object they’re looking for in the scene, so they
look for blue things of a certain size, and all the candidates, where they find
a blue thing, will then look for a yellow or an orange thing right next to it,
which is the shirt. So they find the jeans, they then look for the shirt to
match. And that’s how they did it, and it worked incredibly well.
Glen Paul: Hmm. Amazing. And what about the status then of Outback Joe,
he didn’t get the water, so did he perish under the guidelines?
Dr Roberts: Well, that’s right, so he’s still out there, so this is...
this was the fifth year we’ve run this competition out at Kingaroy, which is in
south-east Queensland, and unfortunately according to his Twitter feed, because
he is on Twitter, he does have good 3G coverage out there even though he’s lost,
he has been reporting that he’s still thirsty and would like to be rescued next
Glen Paul: Fair enough. We’re able to avoid the memorial service.
Dr Roberts: That’s right (chuckles).
Glen Paul: Let’s go back then to the very first contest. How
sophisticated are the UAV’s becoming now? Would a top UAV from back then still
be competitive today without an upgrade?
Dr Roberts: No, no. Back in the first two years of this competition not
one team managed to launch their aircraft from the airport. During the year we
have numerous teams register at the beginning, and then there’s a number of
checkpoints they have to go through over the duration of the competition – they
have to submit safety plans, risk assessments, documentation about demonstrating
whether they’ve flown well, and all those sorts of things.
And this year, for example, we had 70 teams enter 18
months before the competition, but only four teams made it through to actually
launch their aircraft after all the final checks. The team that came first,
they came back with a slightly damaged aircraft, but nonetheless they landed
successfully, and we had a team from Canada, called Forward Robotics, who
managed to do about 65% of the searching, but they had a problem with their
camera. There was... for whatever reason the camera system wasn’t working, so
there was nothing for them to look through to actually find Outback Joe. They
also successfully returned to the airport. We had two other aircraft that
unfortunately crashed on the range.
Glen Paul: So they’re coming along in leaps and bounds. Obviously the
challenge demonstrates the potential good that can come from UAV’s in areas such
as search and rescue, but of late there has been a focus on their potential
misuse, such as being used for intrusive purposes. Do you think as the
technology develops it will become a real issue, say with paparazzi spying on
celebrities from the air?
Dr Roberts: Oh, of course, you know, any new technology can be used for
good things or bad things, and there’s no doubt it has to be controlled. People
have to understand what this technology can and can’t do, and we have to really
develop a culture around how this sort of technology is used correctly.
Of course there are also regulations, so this industry
is actually regulated by CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and all
people using these sorts of devices for commercial purposes have to actually
operate correctly and under those regulations. Everybody really has to know
what they’re doing, and act appropriately.
Glen Paul: So is the trend then for bigger or smaller UAV’s?
Dr Roberts: Oh, the trend is for smaller. A lot of the technology
developments are being led by the toy industry, so you can now buy – mainly for
indoor use I should say – but you can buy these very small flying machines for
as little as $50 now, to fly around your house indoors. But the fact that
they’re being made smaller, the electronics is becoming smaller and cheaper,
that can actually be applied to slightly larger ones outside.
Also the technology in your mobile phone, a lot of the
sensors in there, the little accelerometers and gyros that everybody has in
their phones, that make their phones magically change the orientation of their
screen when they tilt them around, those sorts of sensors can also be used in
unmanned aircraft, and the fact that they’re mass produced now for phones means
that they’re cheap and available for smaller UAV’s.
Glen Paul: Well let’s take a peep into the future then, big or small,
with computer power doubling every couple of years, what will UAV’s be capable
of doing for poor Outback Joe say in ten years time?
Dr Roberts: Well I’m really hoping the next time we run this competition,
and we’ll run it again, that we actually complete this mission and manage to, as
well as automatically find Outback Joe, deliver that water bottle, and have the
aircraft return with no human input. So that really would be fantastic – take
off by itself, find Outback Joe by itself, drop the water bottle, and come back,
no-one doing anything in between – that would be marvellous.
The next planned challenge would then go to the next
level, where an aircraft has got to perform a mission and then potentially land
at an unprepared airport, maybe a farmer’s bush strip, or a large paddock
somewhere out in the outback, where the aircraft’s got to circle around, make
some sort of assessment of the area where it’s got to land, and actually plan
and decide for itself how to land, and where to land, and which way the wind’s
going, and all those sorts of things that a pilot would normally be able to do,
and actually land itself.
We would love to then be able to show how a farmer could
put in a sample, you know there might some medical emergency and they want a
blood sample, put in a little vile of blood into the UAV and have it take off by
itself and go back to base. That would really be a fantastic thing to show,
maybe in five or six year’s time.
Glen Paul: Righteo. So if someone wants to start preparing now for next
year’s competition, where do they start; where do they go to for information
Dr Roberts: So we have our website, which is
www.uavoutbackchallenge.com.au [external link].
If you simply type in uavoutbackchallege or uavchallenge into any search engine,
you’ll find all sorts of references to it, and you won’t have a lot of problem
finding things. We’ve also got a Facebook page, a Twitter feed – do a quick
search, you’ll find our sites.
Glen Paul: Excellent. And it certainly is an exciting future. It’ll be
very interesting to see where it all ends up. Thank you very much for
discussing it with me today, Jonathan.
Dr Roberts: OK. Thanks a lot, Glen.
Glen Paul: Doctor Jonathan Roberts. And to find out more about the
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