Australia Surf Life Savers AI-Powered BVLOS Drones

AI-powered BVLOS long range search and rescue dronesAustralian Surf Life Savers, Aviassist Trial Long Range Search-and-Rescue Drones

by DRONELIFE Staff Writer Ian M. Crosby

Due to the assistance of drone training specialist Aviassist, Surf Life Saving NSW’s Australian UAV Service could soon begin deploying long range drones to locate missing bushwalkers or people swept into rough seas. The technology was tested both night and day at Evans Head on the NSW far north coast, finding a pair of mock hikers who were “lost” in nearby scrubland.

The test flights saw four long range drones take turns searching for the missing hikers alongside 16 other scenarios, with the NSW government committing $1 million toward the 18 month-long Long Range UAV Project, which includes a week-long trial called the Long Range UAV Project Trial Week. SLSNSW is currently assessing whether the technology could be rolled out permanently, thanks to the help of Aviassist with regulatory approvals.

“This really is a gamechanger for surf life saving. Every second counts in these situations so if a drone can be launched with thermal cameras, a missing person, or group of people, can be found quickly and that can be the difference between life and death,” said Aviassist Managing Director Ross Anderson. “The technology is advancing so fast at the moment and that allows for more area to be covered in less time, so it’s there to be harnessed. Surf Life Saving NSW’s UAV Pilots are picking it up quite fast – there’s an enthusiasm there to upskill and ultimately save lives. Surf Life Saving NSW already has a fleet of more than 200 drones, making it the biggest of any surf life saving organisation in the southern hemisphere. Drones are more than tools, they’re teammates.”

“We’re really pleased with how the week went – opportunities to get so many likeminded people together and test some truly outstanding drones under controlled conditions don’t come around very often,” said Australian Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle Service (AUAVS), SLSNSW’s drone department, Manager and Chief Remote Pilot, Paul Hardy. “This project allowed us to safely trial different types of drones that are capable of flying further and for longer, by operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). The potential of this is massive as it can remove drone operators from dangerous situations and allow us to reduce response time to incidents and provide greater situational awareness in so many other scenarios.”

Recently, Aviassist oversaw the first AI enabled drone flight in Australia from a ‘smart’ docking station around Sydney Harbour, in which the drone was able to navigate around pylons and buildings and detect the Harbour Bridge in the background. The Dock is claimed to be able to fly a drone in a five kilometer range and to within 11 centimeters of a foreign object. Though not a requirement, an individual can monitor the drone’s stream from anywhere in the world.

“It was only a matter of time,” said Anderson. “The drone was able to work out there were certain structures in the area and fly around them. It’s not autopilot, it’s AI. It was the drone summing up its surroundings and saying to itself, ‘hey, I can fly here, I can’t fly there’.”

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Ian attended Dominican University of California, where he received a BA in English in 2019. With a lifelong passion for writing and storytelling and a keen interest in technology, he is now contributing to DroneLife as a staff writer.