Trials are currently underway in rural Queensland and New South Wales to utilise military-grade drones to help tackle Australia's expensive pest problem.
Australian company, Ninox Robotics, hopes to provide high-tech surveillance by utilising unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with advanced real time thermal imaging capabilities to detect invasive pests such as wild dogs, pigs or rabbits across rural terrain.
The trials for Ninox's SpyLight System are the most ambitious for civilian drones ever conducted in Australian airspace. They feature a number of regulatory firsts following approval from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), including an enhanced flight ceiling of over 400m, flight range beyond visible line of sight, and the ability to fly at night to utilise its unique far infrared (thermal) sight.
Information gathered during trials will be combined in real time with existing control techniques in order to measure the efficacy of the system and its application.
Marcus Ehrlich, managing director of Ninox Robotics, said at a press conference held in Sydney that Australia suffers from a dozen invasive species that cause approximately a billion dollars of damage a year by harming farm animals and crops and spreading disease.
"We can build barrier fences, we can bait, we can shoot... but we lack quality intelligence," he said. "With the application of UAVs, we have a new weapon in this fight."
Ehrlich said he had met farmers that had incurred losses of up to six figures over the last couple of years thanks to pests, while one spoke of spending four hours a day defending his sheep from attacks.
Last week's trial in southern Queensland involved the SpyLight System detecting invasive pests from the air, providing information on their whereabouts in real-time to a pest management officer.
Drones were also used to undertake a mock rescue of a missing person lost in the woods, searching for small brush fires from over 5km away, and cataloguing a mob of sheep.
This week, a second trial will be conducted across farms and national parks in Moonie, Queensland, followed by another trial week in Armidale with the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
The UAVs, manufactured by Bluebird Aerosystens, have an average flight time of three to four hours, and can travel up to 50km away from ground station control (80km in certain circumstances). Trials have involved journey coverage of 30 square kilometers per flight, with an anticipated growth to 100 square kilometers.
Pending the planned outcome of the trial, Ninox Robotics intends to commercialise the service by the end of the year following lots of interest from farmers.
The company plans to source former drone pilots from the Australian Defence Force to expand its team before offering services to various government agencies, farmers and land holders.
At this stage, pricing for the service is expected to be between $3000-3500 per flight. The data collected will be available to the client and jointly held with Ninox Robotics.
"Australia is enormous. We need to be able to cover ground quickly, rapidly and easily. We need to be able to see things we otherwise wouldn't be able to see... and we need to be able to fly high so we can cover as much ground as possible," says Ehrlrich.
"I'm confident Ninox Robotics can take a number of very valuable services to Australian government and landholders in the agricultural space, in the search and rescue space, the fire rescue space and in general bio-security."