Expert Q&A: UAVs with Gary Butcher

Expert Q&A: UAVs with Gary Butcher

How did you initially get involved with UAVs?

I started flying radio controlled helicopters about five years ago when I got hooked flying my son’s new toy after he went to bed. I ended up buying my own helicopters and joining a club to learn to fly.

When UAVs started to appear a few years ago I thought I’d give it a go and have been flying ever since. I was lucky enough to get involved in the exciting Geomatic Technologies UAV program and am working closely with the team to develop and grow a commercial capability for UAV based asset inspections.

There’s a rumour that you spend a lot of your holidays and free time flying UAVs for pleasure in addition to all the time you spend with them in the course of your job.

Yes, I really like aerial photography and the unique perspective that a UAV gives of our amazing landscape. I like to spend my weekends flying with friends and often go on trips to remote places to capture aerial photographs and video, such as on a recent trip to Arnhem Land in NT.

What is a UAV?

UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and they’re also known as drones but UAV sounds less militaristic and since our purposes aren’t militaristic, that’s what we prefer to call them.

What purposes does Geomatic Technologies use UAVs for?

We use UAVs to assist with asset inspection in a number of ways. A UAV allows us to capture high quality imagery of hard to reach assets and use that imagery to inspect the condition of an asset. This includes capturing imagery of the tops of power distribution poles to identify defects and capturing comprehensive imagery of transmission towers. Using the UAV provides a far safer and faster means of performing inspections compared to traditional methods.

The other exciting area of development is using long range UAV’s to inspect linear corridors such as powerline easements or gas and water pipelines.  We currently fly these linear easements using helicopters and aeroplanes, recording high quality imagery and LiDAR to check for vegetation encroachments and identify pole top defects. In the future we want to use UAV’s as the capture platform to reduce costs and provide greater flexibility.

Sounds exciting.  Can UAV’s fly far enough and carry the required sensors to undertake these works?

Yes there are a range of UAV’s capable of extended flight time’s whilst carrying suitable payloads.  These aircraft are fixed-wing UAVs that have specialist communications and control software to enable them to operate safely over long distances.  To perform these works we need to fly Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) which requires special permission from the regulator CASA.

Can you explain more about BVLOS?

Flying a UAV BVLOS can be a challenge because we have to ensure the flight is performed safely and does not put the general public or other aircraft at risk.  When a UAV flies over long distances and is out of sight of the operator we need to have controls in place to ensure there is no chance of a collision.  This requires a detailed risk assessment of the flight area and the use of reliable aircraft that can be monitored during flight to confirm it is on-track and operating as expected.

After the risk assessment we program the aircraft to follow a pre-determined flight path.  After launch the aircraft autonomously follows the flight path, following our programed flight instructions.  During the flight we monitor the aircraft using a ground Control Station that shows its location, speed, altitude and other telemetry so we know it is performing as expected.  The whole operation requires reliable long range communications and we have a number of safety measures in place to deal with lost communications or unexpected behaviour.

Is flying BVLOS common or popular?

We recently performed a 20km flight (40km return) over infrastructure easements in semi-urban areas which is one of the first cases in the world.

At the moment flying a UAV BVLOS requires a special authorisation from the regulator, CASA.  We have been working closely with CASA over the last few years to develop our BVLOS capability and ensure our operations are safe and compliant.

To date, only a handful of BVLOS flights have been undertaken in Australia, typically in remote areas away from people and infrastructure.

We are now working to have an area of our network set aside for BVLOS operations so we can continue to develop the capability and test various aircraft and sensors.

What does the future hold? 

In the not-too-distant-future UAV’s will have collision avoidance sensors enabling them to detect other aircraft and take evasive action. There will be standardisation of communication protocols and transponder technology so aircraft will be aware of other airspace users, and where required air traffic control can monitor and direct air traffic.

This will make it easier and quicker to fly BVLOS operations, enabling us to safely and efficiently utilise BVLOS UAVs for a wide range of aerial services. Geomatic Technologies is a leader in this emerging technology providing opportunities for operational savings and growth.

We believe this technology will significantly improve the efficiency of our existing aerial services. Over time, it will also enable us to undertake more frequent data capture to support automated change detection and analytics, along with the ability to rapidly deploy aerial sensors across hard to access areas in the event of an emergency.