Down to earth: UAVs prove their everyday potential

By Sue White

6 October 2016

Canberra’s UAV quad plane which successfully returned the blood sample during the Medical Express Challenge

Canberra’s UAV quad plane which successfully returned the blood sample during the Medical Express Challenge. Image – Philip Rowse

It’s been an unusual time for emergencies in Queensland lately. First, a mobile phone call advised that a patient located about an hour out of Brisbane was suffering an allergic reaction. Urgent medical assistance was required, but it was high school students, not emergency professionals, who made repeated attempts to deliver an Epipen and stave off disaster.

A fortnight later, just two hours up the road in Dalby, Queensland, another patient found themselves in dire straits. This time, aviators from across the globe went to work. Although one group managed to identify the patient, land at his farm and bring his blood sample back to base, many rescue vehicles were harmed in the attempt. One spewed flames from its tail, another hung tangled in a tree, and two others made it to the farm but crashed on approach.

Surprisingly, in both situations, those calling the shots were satisfied. This was, after all, not a real emergency situation but a fierce competition; one that is helping demonstrate the utility of Unmanned Airborne Vehicles (UAVs – or as they are commonly known as, drones) for civilian use.

Our contest, known as the UAV Challenge, has changed form during its ten year history, but the goal remains the same: to extend boundaries in the field and help push the application of drone technologies forward.  What we really love to see most of all in this competition are applications with the real potential to save lives. It’s just one reason that, while the UAV Challenge is a game of sorts, participation is not taken lightly. Teams competing in both competitions, the Medical Express and Airborne Delivery challenge – have been preparing for 18 months filing flight logs, writing reports and creating videos to prove their worth to enter.

The ten teams of the 2016 UAV Challenge Medical Express.

The ten teams of the 2016 UAV Challenge Medical Express.

“The challenges require entrants to develop new solutions, or increase the capability of existing solutions. There is no off the shelf way of doing it,” says  Dennis Frousheger, a Senior Engineer with Data61 and a co-organiser of the UAV Challenge along with Professor Jonathan Roberts, from QUT’s robotics faculty.

Most people associate today’s drone technologies with pizza delivery, real estate photography or mapping. But other possibilities are starting to gain traction.

“Drones are being used a lot in mining, to monitor changing terrain, or on tasks like weed spotting in rainforests,” says Professor Roberts.

Both organisers are excited by the prospect that one day drones will be fully autonomous. It’s a future getting ever closer thanks to cheap computing and improved sensors.

The competition continues to challenge and push the boundaries in what it asks of entrants. Transit distances in the UAV Challenge are longer, and remote landings (not yet commercially viable, partly due to legislation) are now part of the challenge, and it’s a fair guess about where future applications may lie.

“Large drones may go and winch people out of tricky situations where it is too hazardous to put helicopters with people in,” Roberts says.

In fact, the opportunities are virtually endless. Large scale, long range cargo delivery, autonomous aircraft could mean even the most remote communities could get their internet shopping, fresh fruit and medical supplies via drones.

“I’m excited by the prospect that the things that were science fiction just 15 years ago are close to being an everyday reality. Drones will eventually become an everyday part of life and an indispensable tool for businesses and people,” Frousheger says.

Now in its 10th year, our UAV challenge continues to challenge and push the boundaries of drone technologies. You can find out more about our UAV challenge here.