UK United Kingdom

Not just for war: how drones can be used for good

It’s becoming rare to see or hear coverage of combat and conflict without the mention of unmanned “drones” and their use in targeted killings. The subject rated a mention in last year’s US presidential…

How can UAV or “drone” technology be used for purposes outside combat? NZ Defence Force

It’s becoming rare to see or hear coverage of combat and conflict without the mention of unmanned “drones” and their use in targeted killings.

The subject rated a mention in last year’s US presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney - in which Romney supported Obama’s use of drones on terror targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

US senator Rand Paul held the Senate floor for almost 13 hours earlier this month to discuss the potential for the use of lethal drones on American soil.

It is an extremely emotive topic.

With all forms of technology, its value depends on its use and who is using it. And so it is with drones, which over the past 10 years have enjoyed an ever-growing presence in civilian applications.

What’s in a name?

The term “drone” is hardly ever used these days by those who work on their development. The origin of the term is unknown: some say it is because of the low, humming noise they make; others say its based on experiments conducted in Britain in the 1930s.

The original term was “pilotless airplane”, which then moved on to “drone”, and then to “remotely piloted vehicles” (RPV) in the 1970s, and “unmanned aircraft” (UMA) in the 1980s.

Currently, the most popular term is “unmanned air vehicle” (UAV); if one wants to consider the whole system (including communication, ground station and supporting human roles) it’s an “unmanned air system” (UAS).

“Robotic aircraft” (RA) is another term bandied around to represent the growing trend in developing UAVs with greater levels of situational awareness and intelligence. Confusion will linger for some time.

Civilian applications

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap published by the US Department of Defence suggests almost US$20 billion has been devoted to UAS since 2005. As with other technologies, the significant amount of spending the military has put towards new platforms, autopilots, better on-board battery systems and smaller surveillance systems has had a positive impact on UAVs in civilian applications.

Ten years ago, if a university wanted to develop UAVs for civilian applications, the development of the platform, electronics, flight-control laws, sensor, ground station and its software and communication all had to be done in-house, tending towards a multi-year, multi-million dollar program.

Today, this whole system can be purchased as an off-the-shelf UAV platform with auto take-off and landing, up to a four-hour flight duration, along with imaging sensors, for less than A$100,000 - ready to use.

Aerial video of Sydney captured by a multi-rotor UAV.

Even cheaper platforms with less capability can be obtained for A$40,000. And let’s not forget the latest trend in multi-rotor UAVs that can be bought and flown the next day for A$2,000-A$10,000 (albeit with only a few minutes of flight time and a low sensing capability - but sometimes the sensor can be worth more than the UAV platform).

Arguably, the media’s growing interest in “drone journalism” could be seen as a good thing, although this could be a double-edged sword. In 2011, Nine Network’s 60 Minutes came under fire after screening footage taken by an “unmanned surveillance drone” over a detention camp on Christmas Island. We can expect to see much more of this.

UAVs and robotic aircraft are currently being used for tracking animals, weather monitoring, detecting and tracking poachers, and in agriculture to measure the health of trees and soil.

Up close and personal: footage of a UAV intercepting a tornado supercell.

For the applications mentioned above, small UAV systems are used, however sophisticated. But there have been direct purchases of what are “off-the-shelf” military platforms used for combating drug trafficking, and bushfire monitoring.

Australian-specific uses

UAVs for civilian applications have a proud history in Australia. In fact, for many years, Australia has had some of the most liberal aviation rules for these systems.

Our best known example is the Laima UAV – built, tested and flown by the Melbourne-based company Aerosonde. In August 1998, it was the first robotic aircraft to fly across the North Atlantic.

The original concept was conceived by the Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre in Melbourne, with the objective of building a UAV that could collect weather data.

There are ongoing trials to use UAVs to chase criminals, for search and rescue, and in mining, invasive weed detection and agriculture:

Agriculture UAV work in Australia.


There are many restrictions already in place on UAV technology to prevent its misuse. The two main ones relate to the autopilot and the capability of those in ultimate control of the platform.

The autopilot comprises of sensors (usually accelerometers, gyroscopes and GPS) and algorithms that can estimate the position, velocity and attitude of the platform. Those estimates are then sent to the flight control algorithms that both stabilise the platform and provide the guidance laws for motion between different locations.

With increasing sensor accuracy, and better flight-control laws, one can develop very-high precision flight manoeuvres. For this reason, autopilots are restricted through ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) agreements.

As for who is allowed to fly a UAV for civilian purposes, the best place to start is our own Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

CASA has been recognised as being forward-thinking by many similar bodies around the world, and has allowed Australia to advance this type of technology more than many other countries. The Civil Aviation Safety Regulations Part 101 outlines the approval steps required for an individual or organisation to develop, test and use any UAV for civilian applications.

Gaining approval to use a UAV in Australia - even remotely close to any civilian population - involves extensive hurdles. As illustrated by the examples above, almost all civilian UAV use in Australia is undertaken away from populated regions.

But as the technology advances and becomes safer, we will see increasing numbers of UAVs and robotic aircraft being used for civilian applications.

So keep your eyes on the skies - you never know when a UAV might be coming to help you!

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. Jack Arnold


    Thank you Salah for an informative background review. Drones/UAVs certainly have an exciting future at a very affordable price.

    I am reminded that 40 years ago a plant pathology PhD student at Adelaide University constructed a 2m wing span 4 channel model aircraft to carry a 35mm camera to sample his field trials from 1500m altitude. Before that, the Australian Air Force developed the Jindivik pilotless aircraft as a target vehicle for gunnery practice.

    Your article once again shows that Australian scientists remain at the forefront of their fields of study despite the funding policies of the Howard government and the impediments of a national cultural cringe.

    1. Salah Sukkarieh

      Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at University of Sydney

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Thanks Jack. Yes we have a proud history. Your comment also reminds me about our wonderful past in Space which surprises many.

  2. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Great Article, I want to see Drones assisting construction workers, working together to lift steel frames into place and bolting them in, eventually I dont see why drones couldnt replace many of these types of jobs

    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Salah Sukkarieh

      Thanks for the links mate, very interesting, look forward to reading your future articles

  3. Kel nudsen

    logged in via Twitter

    In the oil and gas industry, drones have been suggested (and have been used overseas) as a way to conduct exploration and aermoagnetic surveys in remote areas (such as locations far offshore) where it's too costly for a manned vehicle, primarily due to fuel issues. UAVs could be launched directly from a ship or from a field.

    Another benefit is that the small size of a UAV and low metal content means that there is less perturbation of the magnetic fields being measured.

  4. Yoron Hamber


    Why not use zeppelin technology :)
    No need for wings, cheap in fuel, not very fast but good enough for normal peaceful needs.

    1. Jack Arnold


      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      The Bond Blimp was used for a while to give over the ground football TV coverage in Australia. It was replaced by an omnidirectional wire based system carrying camera made in the USA.

      Sport pics is another area of Australian expertise that leads the world. Does anybody how much has Channel 9 made from this technology they developed in Australia?

  5. Nicky Karunarathna

    logged in via Facebook

    Drones and science one thing. But drone used for innocent killings by Obama and his team and also his predecessor have to be hang or sent to electric chair forthwith. These American hypocrites bring human right motions and talk about other country leaders in every forum including that fraudulent UN and its allied agencies to punish others. Obama, especially blot on the entire human civility taking so-called Nobel peace Price and went on record killing using these devices, which should have used serve humanity. Organizations call Amnest Internatinal, International Crisis Group et al are silence on US, UK and Europe killings instigated by UN have to probed. Especially, one million killed and three million displaced in Iraq war. Now it is started in Syria and these murderers are itching to send drones and weapons to terrorist against the legitimate governments to kill more people.

    1. Jack Arnold


      In reply to Nicky Karunarathna

      Sadly Nicky I must concur. The US has placed drones with the CIA, the leading terror organisation in the world that is apparently outside the governance of the US Congress. About 40% of the US budget goes without comment to "defence spending projects in the national security interest".

      Drones are the ultimate killing machine; maximum distance between combatants with minimum risk to the oppressors. Dr Who would be impressed.

  6. Michael Ekin Smyth


    Drone helicopters are now used widely in Japan for agricultural work. I've seen estimates that up to 30 per cent of Japanese crops are now sprayed by drones. One of the most popular and advanced models is the RMAX made by Yamaha. A 98cc helicopter, it was first manufactured in 1988.The technology is far from new but the latest models have advanced GPS and control systems which make it far more capable - and more expensive. The RMAX is also sold in Australia.

    1. Salah Sukkarieh

      Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at University of Sydney

      In reply to Michael Ekin Smyth

      Thanks Michael.

      RMAX as you said has recently come into Australia and the options for using these platforms for agriculture was one of the main reasons (they specifically stated that its introduction into Australia had to be for civilian purposes only - there is a history there as to why this was the case:
      It is as you said expensive but with excellent capability.

  7. Mike Jubow

    forestry nurseryman

    Abuse of this technology is already here! See;

    With animal rights activists using this technology, I see one hell of a fuss brewing. Farmers are threatening to shoot them down or use electronic countermeasures to protect their privacy, I don't blame them in the least. Fly one of these things over a cattle yard at 10 metres and you are going to have a highly disturbed mob of cattle to handle. All the cattlemen I know, and I have been one in the past, prefer to work their animals quietly. One of these things buzzing around would be enough for me to pick up the rifle and put an end to it too.

  8. Gordon Roesler

    Visiting Researcher & Senior Project Engineer, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW Australia

    Salah, it's a great summary of the applications. As you may know, many American states are considering legislation to limit UAV use due to privacy concerns. You have astutely pointed out how technology development needs to proceed ethically so that we can get the benefits without social costs.

    Like other robots, the winning applications may be the dull, dirty and dangerous ones that humans can't or shouldn't do.