An unmanned aerial drone was able to find a dummy of a missing bushwalker with no human intervention in what CSIRO believes is a world-first for a non-military drone.
The Outback Rescue Challenge, a competition for developers of "unmanned airbourne vehicles" (UAVs), was held at Kingaroy in Queensland from Monday to Wednesday.
CSIRO researchers say the performance this week by amateur group Canberra UAV means drones could be assisting rescue workers in as little as five years.
Canberra UAV's drone was able to take off and search the entire designated area (about 1.5km by 3km) on its own before locating the dummy, "Outback Joe", about 40 minutes into the flight and beaming back photos to the team.
"There was no human in the loop there, the plane itself found Outback Joe, who was lying in the field in the southern end of the search area," said Jonathan Roberts, research director at CSIRO's autonomous systems laboratory in Brisbane and a co-founder of the challenge.
Roberts and his team are researching how drones could be used safely in real search-and-rescue missions and during natural disasters, and says this could be as close as five years away thanks to this week's breakthrough.
While last year's winning team was also able to locate the bushwalker, this was not completely autonomous as the team was looking through the camera from the ground and spotted the dummy on their TV screens.
No team actually "won" this year's challenge and the prize of $50,000, because the rules state that the drones must drop a bottle of water to Outback Joe - a feat none of the four search-and-rescue teams achieved. But Canberra UAV was awarded a $10,000 "encouragement award".
"The significance of this one is that the plane itself found the lost bushwalker and that's a very big deal," said Roberts, adding he believed it was a first in the "civilian world".
Canberra UAV consists of hobbyists, including an electronics technician, software engineers and communications experts. Team leader Stephen Dade, a satellite communications engineer, said their use of an open-source autopilot - worked on by software engineers all over the world - gave them an edge.
"We're all amateurs; prior to this project none of us had any sort of experience with UAVs or aircraft or autopilots. Over the last two years we taught ourselves everything there is to know about this," Dade said.
"We're over the moon; we're really, really happy about it."
About 70 teams started about 18 months ago but only four made it to the start of the competition on Monday.
Teams must submit safety and design documents and show that their craft can fly automatically for at least five hours.
Five teams made it to the final safety checks, but one crashed because it crossed an invisible safety boundary known as a "geo-fence", leaving four to start the challenge on Tuesday. (CSIRO requirements mean that once aircraft cross the boundary they automatically dive and crash to avoid injuring people).
Compass UAV's drone mysteriously crashed while heading towards the search area, and Roberts said an investigation was ongoing.
A Canadian team called Forward Robotics covered about 65 per cent of the search area but it could not find the dummy because its camera malfunctioned.
Open UAS from the Netherlands thought they were safe after a minor crash the day before, but their drone had internal wing damage and the wing broke off while it was on its way to the search area.
Australia was the first country to introduce legislation covering civilian use of drones in 2002.
The technology is used by surf livesaving clubs during patrols, real estate agents, environmental researchers, government agencies monitoring illegal fishing, mining companies for surveying, and media companies including the Nine Network and News Limited.
There are about 21 organisations licensed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to fly commercial drones around Australia but advances in technology have seen a rise in hobbyists' drones that do not require CASA certification and safety checks.
Last month safety concerns were expressed following incidents at Australian airports, while the Australian Privacy Commissioner has called for a public debate about whether current regulations are sufficient to deal with any misuse of the technology.
- Sydney Morning Herald