The use of drones and robotics is gaining pace as we head toward an era where working alongside an automated co-worker will not be out of the question. Drones are already in use in a big way across such industries as rural, agricultural, real estate, construction, oil and gas exploration and weather forecasting to name a few, their primary advantage being their ability to reach rooftops and other tricky areas where it would be costly, risky or both to send a person or team. Some industry observers forecast it won’t be too long before drones are part and parcel of everyday office life as well.

Official data has the drone industry potentially increasing the country’s GDP by $14.5 billion between now and 2040, and it is one of the reasons behind the government developing a national robotics strategy by March next year. “We need to be doing work on robotics because it can be applied in areas where we’ve got skills shortages, and help businesses enormously,” Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic said. “It isn’t about displacing people - it’s filling roles when there’s no one to do the work.”

Automation on the march

If one thing is certain it is that the use of drone technology across Australian industry is on the move. The government last week closed submissions on drone delivery technology and will release its policy early next year. Also last week a new research and training centre for drones was established in the Northern Territory at Charles Darwin University (CDU). To be known as The North Australia Centre for Autonomous Systems (NACAS), it will oversee the development of drone technology destined for use by logistic supply chains, border security, agriculture, fisheries, emergency and disaster planning, health care, resource extraction, and energy.

In November, Brisbane made its debut as host city for The World of Drones & Robotics Congress. Cutting edge drone technology was on display at the congress, including one machine that successfully conducted the first drone marine rescue in 2018 using inflatable rescue pods and sea marker dye. Mr Husic opened the conference with a speech emphasising the importance of automation and robotics to Australian industry and workplaces in coming years, telling the congress that in 2021 robotics companies were estimated to be worth $18 billion in annual revenue to the Australian economy, up from $12 billion in 2018.

 “We know that technologies like robotics, AI, quantum – all will have profound economic and social impact,” he said.

“Already Australian industries have benefited from the adoption of robotics working with and alongside people creating safer, more productive work environments. The Australian mining and logistics sector, for instance, uses robotic technologies to improve extraction and safety, increase productivity and efficiency, reduce operating costs and, in fact, some of the biggest automated self-driving vehicles in the planet are located in Australian mines today. 

One notable Australian success story has been Swoop Aero, a logistics and drone delivery company that operates locally and internationally transporting lab samples and medical supplies. “The expertise is now being adapted and applied in other sectors, including pharmaceuticals and healthcare, agriculture and space,” Mr Husic said. “Robotic technologies have the potential to provide significant social, economic, environmental benefit to Australia and can have impact across the economy.”  

Useful across industry

The fastest adopter of drone technology in Australia so far has been the construction industry. Operators have been using the miniature flying machines to survey, map and deliver accurate measurements which has led to greater efficiencies and cost savings. But the machines can also produce similar outcomes across multiple sectors and industries said Chris Patchell, general manager and director of operations at the Melbourne-based multidisciplinary surveying and imaging company Avian Australia 3D Laser Scanning and Surveying in Melbourne | Avian.

“For manufacturing companies for instance, drones are a lifesaver,” Mr Patchell said. “Usually, business owners have to spend a significant amount of time inside these manufacturing units to ensure that everything is running smoothly. The on-site manager or contactor also has to keep an eye on the raw materials and maintain a regular inventory of the resources used every day.

“But with drones this process seems a lot less taxing. You don’t have to physically check every aspect of the site. Instead you let the drone do all the hard work for you. Drones can reach high rise areas, inspect rooftops, narrow crevices, small pipelines and the like without putting anyone else in a dangerous situation.” 

Drones can also be of enormous help to organisations that have to deal with large amounts of data mapping, as well as for warehousing and tracking inventory. “Before drones, workers had to track the on-site materials,” Mr Patchell said. “Contractors can now identify missing stock in minutes. Drones also help with bookkeeping and maintaining financial records for year-end accounting.”  

  • The federal government is currently developing drone delivery guidelines in close consultation with industry, state, territory, and local governments. The final version is planned for release in 2023. Visit Economic benefits | Drones for more information.
  • For more information about guidelines for safe usage of drones in Australia see Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA)