In early October last year, a planned burn in the Australian localities of Lancefield and Cobaw, Victoria, broke containment lines. As part of an investigation into the incident, recommendations were made to the Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning (DELWP) to develop improvements to the effectiveness of how to conduct planned burns.

A year on, the DELWP completed a successful 12-week trial that tested the capability of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) or drones, for more effective monitoring of planned burns — the process of burning flammable materials under controlled conditions to reduce the spread of bushfires. The drones were also tested for tracking of koalas, deer, penguins, and seals; environmental and coastal management, such as coastal erosion; and cultural heritage mapping.

While the last five years have seen an increased uptake of drones by businesses — some instances with dubious consequences — DELWP’s trial marked a first for the use of drones in an official capacity for Australian land and environmental management. For an ecosystem as varied as Australia’s, drones could allow the industry to acheive previously unobtainable goals.

In terms of their technological capability, DELWP’s drones boasted several added advantages as part of the trial period. Their LiDAR capability — which measures the distance from a target using a laser — can see through the forest canopy to determine the fuel density on the ground, as well as accurately plot coastal erosion; while its high resolution camera is ideal for creating 3D photomosaic images for cultural heritage mapping and coastal erosion monitoring. Its thermal and infra-red cameras, aside from detecting fires, can find wildlife in dense forests.

As well as monitoring the planned burns while they’re taking place and post-process mapping, their drones evaluated an area prior to the planned burn taking place in terms of topography, hazardous trees, nearby infrastructure, and vegetation types and densities that could lead to the crossing of containment lines.

Victoria’s Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio told TechRepublic that for planned burns, the drones assist in covering large or inaccessible areas where the data collection used to be done on foot. Not only this, she said the UAVs enable better communications for people on the ground, especially in remote areas, which in turn means increased safety for staff.

But a hugely important aspect for DELWP in their use of drones for planned burns is the improved ability to survey areas that were previously inaccessible. An advantage of the drones for surveying koala population sizes at sites in Victoria’s Barwon South West is they are much quieter than traditional aircraft, making the animals less likely to be disturbed and therefore easier to count.

Mobility is a huge factor across the board. Sydney-based Ninox Robotics, which started commercial operations this year, is an environmental management startup that commercially deploys UAVs throughout Australia for missions such as biosecurity, pest control, and infrastructure management purposes. Managing director Marcus Ehrlich told TechRepublic the company was established as a response to the problems brought on by the introduction of European species into a biosphere as unique as Australia. It was the benefits of UAVs over manned vehicles for pest management that helped enable the company to start operations.

“All the weaknesses of pest management today — fencing, shooting, tracking over vast areas — were some of the strengths of drones. Drones could cover huge amounts of territory cheaply, safely, and efficiently. So I thought: ‘Let’s try and fix this weakness by using this new technology’. And that was the original idea. As we progressed down the line we realised we could do a whole heap of other things quite seamlessly.”

The methods involved in deployment were easier, although Ehrlich admitted that speeds of deployment differ from job to job.

“For our systems we don’t need a lot of aeronautical infrastructure, so we launch with a catapult and we land with a parachute, so we don’t need a runway; we can get to spaces as long as we have road access. Other technologies such as planes need to either fly there expending a lot of fuel, or can’t get there at all.”

Other companies started to switch to UAVs when their advantages became clear. Western Australia-based environmental services company Astron uses drones for tasks including mine rehabilitation monitoring and species detection. Before remote sensing, the company’s rehabilitation monitoring was time-consuming and expensive, and field measurements were prone to subjectivity, according to Sam Atkinson, manager for Geospatial at Astron. It had been operating for over 30 years before integrating remote sensing tools into their methods in 2012 to cover much more ground.

“Traditional ecological methods use manual sampling approaches that typically measure less than 1 percent of the area being studied,” Atkinson told TechRepublic. “UAVs give quantitative data across 100 percent of the study area, enabling a step change in the information available for our clients.”

Atkinson said that the wider scale of terrain that their drones can cover also takes the risk factor out of the equation.

“A lot of our work is conducted in remote areas and sometimes features very difficult terrain with little to no established vehicle access,” he said. “Certainly the ability to fly a UAV mission to collect environmental data across areas such as this, rather than sending in people on the ground, can reduce the exposure of those people to potential hazards. We have had clients come to us for this very reason, for example to do inspections of elevated cave entrances, to search for rare flora along ridge lines or to evaluate vegetation health along rivers or drainage channels.”

Atkinson added that their UAVs’ multispectral sensors, advanced machine learning, and computer vision developments enabled the company to identify, map, and analyse natural phenomena that could not been possible with just the human eye.

Despite these advantages, it is still early days. For businesses like Astron, it takes time and investment to turn a process into something commercially relevant. And with any technical advantage that the drones might have comes with an increased amount of technical understanding required to capture more sophisticated data, all the time working with Civil Aviation Safety Authority expectations.

For DELWP, the use of drones could potentially save on costs, but a report is due to determine their value for money over other data collection techniques before a full rollout is considered.

D’Ambrosio admitted that the drone industry is still quite immature compared to existing aircraft and satellite data collection industries, and this can hamper the approval process.

“RPAS are a new and rapidly developing technology that is still finding its niche,” she told TechRepublic. “The large RPAS, particularly those that fly above 400 feet and beyond visual-line-of-slight, require a long approval process by CASA for each mission.

“This approval process is limiting to the types of work we intend to use the RPAS on, when compared to traditional aircraft which can be deployed at a moment’s notice.”

D’Ambrosio also said that at the moment, the system’s 3D mapping is also limited, and it takes a high amount of computing power for a small, mobile device such as a drone to process and receive a 3D image within 24 hours. Such factors are partly why there will still be a place for existing aircraft and satellite technologies.

DEWLP is currently undertaking a 12-month trial, part of which will be to assess the safety considerations, including the privacy and security of data.

For Ninox Robotics, more sophisticated hardware will never replace strict safety procedures, especially when the new tech can fly higher for longer. In fact, drones bring fresh safety concerns that need to be addressed just like any new tech, Ehrlich suggested.

“It’s a new regulatory environment — when we first started [it was] in a very sort of embryonic stage, and so that poses challenges as to the extent of what you can do,” Ehrlich said. “Particularly given that our capability has the ability to do things like fly really high, beyond visual line of sight, and do night flights.”

“There are [increased safety factors] in the sense that some areas they are ‘flying blind’ and they can’t see where they’re going,” said Ehrlich. “But we have some incredibly well-trained crews and very stringent protocols and regulations around us that mean we do things incredibly safely. And we don’t take any risks.”

While drone adoption in some industries is in an effort to be seen as technologically aware and up to date, Ehrlich said at least for environmental management, drones will play a long-term part.

“When you talk about drones you’re talking about a big scale. Some systems will be quite faddish and tokenistic and good for things like taking photos for property in metro areas, but you’ve got stuff down the other end that can cover a good percentage of the state in a single flight, so I see there’s a lot of use for that, now and into the future,” he said.

“Australia is a country that is vast in size that’s always required high levels of automation due to one, the fact that the country can afford to automate and two, the workforce is not huge and we can do with our machines a lot of the dumb and dirty work that people shouldn’t be doing. I wouldn’t even say it’s the way of the future, I would say it’s the way of the present.”

Atkinson at Astron corroborated this view by saying UAVs will undeniably play an important part in the future of environmental management; however, they are only part of the toolkit.

“It’s easy to fly a UAV; it’s not easy to reliably capture high quality data,” Atkinson said. “We still need and value the skills and experience of well-trained people to turn the data into information and to make effective management decisions. The data captured by UAVs enables us to work smarter rather than harder.”

For all the hype surrounding drones and their ability to take on any workforce autonomously, environmental management marks one sector where for now at least, humans still have to meet them halfway.