If you got lost in the Queensland outback and it was days until you were rescued, the experience would be horrific. Potentially life-threatening. It’s safe to say you would be hesitant to venture into the outback again.

Unless, of course, your name is Joe. Outback Joe.

Year after year, Outback Joe strategically places himself in a pocket of the Queensland outback where he’s particularly hard to find. Outback Joe is the poster boy of the annual UAV Challenge (UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a.k.a. drones, or little flying robots). It’s an international search and rescue competition to save lost bushwalker Outback Joe by using unmanned aircraft to find him, and deliver the poor guy a chocolate bar.

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Outback Joe, ready to go on the first day of the challenge. It’s his 7th consecutive year of going missing.

The Search and Rescue prize for success is $50,000– over the competition’s seven years, the grand prize has never been won. The Challenge also features an ‘Airborne Delivery’ prize for high school students, with over $10,000 in prizes up for grabs.

This year 11 teams from QLD, SA and ACT high schools entered the Airborne Delivery challenge, battling it out to deliver supplies to Joe. The teams flew their robotic aircraft around the airfield search zone, aiming to drop a package containing a chocolate bar to Joe. First place went to the QLD team Calamvale Raptors, who managed to get the bar within 1.2 metres of Outback Joe.


The Calamvale Raptors team. Their successful ‘chocolate drop’ scored them $5,000.

This year marked a milestone in the competition as the team with the youngest team members, The HexFactor, managed to drop the chocolate bar autonomously.

“This is the first time a team has managed that and it was an exciting moment for the UAV Challenge. Their robot was a hexacopter – a six engined helicopter that they built themselves,” said Head Judge of the UAV Challenge and CSIRO’s Program Leader for Autonomous Systems, Dr Jonathan Roberts. The HexFactor didn’t come out on top, but placed sixth, as would be expected with such a team name. They will be remembered in challenges to come for their autonomous dropping milestone.

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The HexFactor. The team with the youngest members and the first to autonomously drop a chocolate bar to Outback Joe.

The Search and Rescue Challenge runs over two years, 2013-2014. In this challenge, international team’s UAVs must locate Outback Joe and deliver an emergency package to him. This year 80 teams from 20 different countries passed the first milestone and will continue next September, when the $50,000 prize will be on offer.

While our UAV developments improve over the next year and years to come, spare a thought for Outback Joe. It’s been seven long years that he’s been waiting to be rescued. Last year Joe tweeted, “So is that it? I saw a plane and waved but no water…”

There’s more about the UAV challenge on their website.