Drones ‘cheaper, faster, safer’ than sending humans on remote NT research jobs


GIF: Scientists are using drones to gather data, imagery and samples from remote or dangerous areas of the NT.

Scientists have a new tool to help them access some of Australia’s most inaccessible and dangerous environments in order to carry out research and help organise rehabilitation.

A Northern Territory team from the Supervising Scientist, a branch of the federal Department of Environment, is pioneering the use of drones to collect data, imagery and samples from crocodile-infested billabongs, flooded wetlands and deserts.

The Supervising Scientist is primarily tasked with monitoring any Ranger uranium mine impacts in the Alligator Rivers area of Kakadu National Park, which surrounds the mine site.

The project’s leader, spatial scientist Dr Renee Bartolo, said using drones gave researchers the opportunity to get into vast expanses of impenetrable country much more quickly and cost effectively than using a ground team to hike in.

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“It’s probably three or four times cheaper to put the drone in,” she said. The scientists are using boat, octocopter and fixed-wing drones to monitor water quality, feral animals, fire and weeds. Using an unmanned craft is often safer than collecting water samples by hand. Dr Bartolo said billabongs previously thought safe had, in fact, been home to huge crocodiles. “We thought of a billabong… ‘no there’s no crocs in here’; then there’s been some of the biggest crocs that we’ve seen,” she said.

Cheaper, safer than a ground team operation

It took time to argue the financial case for the drones. “It’s probably taken about two years of writing business cases and rewriting business cases and waiting a bit for the technology to mature,” research scientist Dr Tim Whiteside said. The scientists said one of the advantages of the octocopter is that it can get into an area affected by a mining incident or cyclone to see where rehabilitation efforts are needed first, more quickly, cheaply and safely than a ground team.

“The small multi-rotors were purchased with incidence response in mind,” Dr Bartolo said. “It gives us greater flexibility to be on the spot if there was something that was time critical, such an incident in the landscape, and we’re able to get out there in a few hours. “The team expect the drones will improve the Supervising Scientist’s ability to carry out its role of monitoring the Ranger uranium mine, surrounded on all sides by Kakadu. “One of our main goals with this technology, is to look at the ability to do water quality monitoring around Ranger and in the surrounding environment,” Dr Bartolo said. The drones also promise scientists and park managers a new capability to carry out surveillance and monitoring of poaching and hunting.