Drones used for bushfires, koala research at Western Sydney University

Is it a bird?: The sky’s the limit for drone research at Western Sydney University.The DJI Inspire 1 drone will be at the heart of the unit. It will be equipped with a HD camera for video and still images and an infrared camera for thermal imaging. Image copyright: IMC (2017).
Is it a bird?: The sky’s the limit for drone research at Western Sydney University.The DJI Inspire 1 drone will be at the heart of the unit. It will be equipped with a HD camera for video and still images and an infrared camera for thermal imaging. Image copyright: IMC (2017).

Staff from Western Sydney University will look to the sky for answers next year, when at least 10 lecturers will seek to hone up on their drone skills.

In 2018, the University will launch its new Drone Research and Teaching Unit. 

The idea is to have more staff trained in the applications of the drone, which can be used for everything from monitoring endangered species through heat sensors, to giving a bird’s eye view while shooting a film, or even providing vital research on bushfires.

Western Sydney is the first Sydney-based university to formalise its drone operations, and it is expected that the unit will improve its capacity to conduct cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary research.

The idea is the brainchild of Parramatta-campus based Dr Sebastian Pfautsch from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology who has spent six months preparing the program. The university has spent about $50,000 on two high-end drones from America and Australia, with heat sensor facilities.

Dr Pfautsch said it meant the university could centralise activities involving remotely piloted aircrafts – or drones – at the university across all Schools and Institutes..

“Initially used for aerial surveillance by military, police and firefighting authorities – in recent years, drones have become popular for a rapidly increasing number of applications,” Dr Pfautsch said.

“Drones are regularly used in the agriculture, forestry and natural resource management sectors, as well as in the real estate, film and traffic industries. A growing number are also used for recreational purposes and within universities we use them for research and teaching purposes.”

Dr Pfautsch said for example drones can help with the mapping of  “urban heat” by identifying hot spots through the heat sensing cameras which can give planners an idea where to plant more trees to cool the Sydney basin.

At Western Sydney University, there are a number of other useful applications for the drones including:

·  Research: forensic investigation, land use change, fauna surveying, precision agriculture, energy management, bridge surveys, building performance, drought assessment, insect/disease monitoring.

·  Teaching: undergraduate and postgraduate courses in arts, creative industries, engineering, forensics, social and environmental sciences, tourism and urban planning.

Dr Pfautsch said it would improve the university’s access to the latest aerial technologies.

“In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulates the use of drones – which it defines as being either ‘commercial’ or ‘recreational’. Currently there is no classified use for research and education purposes.

“For universities, this is a grey area of legislation that can be complicated and confusing to navigate. Researchers and teaching staff may not be fully aware of the rules governing the use of drones, or their responsibilities as drone operators.”

He said WSU previously had “no risk management, no policy in this area… it was a bit of a wild west.”

Selected staff will have access to formal training in the form of a Remote Pilot Licence and will be able to book and hire drone equipment and access drone-based mapping software applications. 

The university will also be able to negotiate with CASA the use of drones in designated ‘no fly’ zones – such as in the regions surrounding the University’s Hawkesbury campus, near the Richmond RAAF base.