Australia could become a key player in the global drone industry network, but faces a lack of cohesion, according to an industry expert.
Dr Catherine Ball, associate professor at the Australian National University, who is widely recognised as a world authority of drone technology, says Australia in many ways is a world leader in drone regulation and usage.
And the potential for an Australian drone industry to grow is very strong, she says.
“The drone sector is not actually a sector of its own right,” Dr Ball told InnovationAus in a recent interview.
“There are drones in pretty much every industry sector possible, but it’s been really difficult to build metrics around the success of the drone industry.”
Dr Ball is the brainchild behind the World Congress of Drones & Robotics launched five years ago.
The latest congress – a live and virtual event – was held over two days at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre last week.
Airspace regulation was high on the agenda at this year’s conference.
5G mobile technology ‘will be essential’
Whatever regulatory model is put in place, it will have to confer exclusivity on specific air corridors either fulltime or parttime, says Dr Ball. This is because if drones from different operators use the same air corridors simultaneously, collisions will be inevitable.
Dr Ball says 5G mobile technology will likely be essential to ensure drones can determine their position, in real time, with sufficient accuracy to stay within their assigned air corridors.
Whatever regulatory model develops, she envisages it being pay-for-use but says the whole issue of airspace regulation for drones is currently hotly debated.
“Will we put drone corridors over areas of lower socioeconomic housing because we don’t want them over our homes. Those questions are being asked right now.”
Australia’s drone industry was given a big boost two years ago when the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the body responsible for regulating Australia’s air space, removed some of the restrictions on drones weighing less than 2kg.
That means anyone can now fly a lightweight drone without needing to train and gain a licence.
Small drone market is largely saturated
However, usage is still tightly regulated, which limits applications. Operators must be able to maintain sight of the drone at all times and keep it within 500m.
As a result, the small drone market is now a largely saturated, says Dr Ball.
And the potential for growth lies in uses for larger, long range drones, where regulations are much stricter and still being developed.
However, Australia has a regulatory regime permitting use of large beyond-line-of-sight drones that has enabled the country to become a world leader.
“Australia is the only place in the world where you can get a license to operate a commercial drone delivery service,” Dr Ball says. “Everywhere else, you have to get an exemption from the regulations, and generally you are restricted to trials on military bases.”
Drone delivery services
Google, she says, has been making use of this facility to pioneer drone delivery services.
Google subsidiary Wing chose Logan in Queensland to launch the world’s first commercial drone delivery service in 2020. It is still operating there and Google is planning to launch in other areas.
However, Dr Ball says many barriers remain to wider use of drone delivery services, in particular access to insurance and to the airspace.
Home delivery and other services in cities have the potential to be high growth for the drone industry if the airspace access challenges can be overcome, she says.
The World of Drones Congress is now the largest drone Congress in the Asia Pacific region.
Major sponsors at this year’s event included the QLD Government and Mirragin Unmanned Systems, a Brisbane-based company assisting Defence and Emergency Services organisations to successfully implement drone programs.