Forestry Crown research institute Scion first to apply for drone beyond-line-of-sight flying

Scion, the forestry Crown research institute, will become the first organisation in New Zealand to fly drones beyond line of sight when it seeks approval under new Civil Aviation Authority rules to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for forest monitoring.

Scion has been conducting publicly and privately funded trials of UAVs for the past three months, including flying along the edge of forests to evaluate tree harvesting and using a UAV with interchangeable remote sensing technology to transmit information on tree health and pests in North and South Island forests.

A Callaghan Innovation-commissioned report last year estimated flying drones out of the operator's line of sight could provide economic gains of up to $190 million annually to New Zealand's farming, forestry and energy sectors. More than 440 commercial UAV users are registered on New Zealand's Airshare website while the consumer drone market is booming.

Scion project leader Bryan Graham said smaller forest owners struggle to afford getting vital information in other ways. In one example, using drones halved the cost of building roads through private forests, he said.

Scion was proceeding cautiously because it didn't "want to be the first to have an accident" but Mr Graham said he hopes to gain approval for commercial beyond-line-of-sight operations by February.

That's despite a public backlash from pilots and others after a September incident when an Air New Zealand pilot on a flight from Christchurch to Auckland said he had experienced a near miss with a red-coloured drone. A CAA investigation concluded without any evidence a drone had been involved.

Greg Dudek, a professor at Canada's McGill Research Centre for Intelligent Machines, told an Auckland conference last week that New Zealand could become a hotbed for testing UAV technology because of its more progressive regulatory approach.

Professor Dudek said he and colleagues had to stop testing their remote sensing technology affixed to UAVs because of regulatory restrictions. His research involves sensing technologies that allow a robot to recognise something novel and summarise data transmitted to a human operator rather than sending masses of images. Potential uses include underwater robots mapping seabed changes in coral or UAVs reviewing crop damage.

The University of Canterbury got CAA approval last year for a 100sq km test zone south of Christchurch for flying drones out of the pilot's line of sight.

University spokesman Kelvin Barnsdale said the test zone was being used to attract international researchers to New Zealand to test their UAV technology, with the university likely to benefit from research collaborations and new students.

He said a couple of companies, including Australian-based UAV company Flirtey which trialled a drone parcel delivery in Auckland in June with Fastway Couriers, are interested in using the test site along with two UK universities. He said many outside of New Zealand think it would be a good place for testing because no-one lives here, but "we do still have aviation laws".

Flirtey founder Matt Sweeney said it was too early to comment on its next planned operation in New Zealand.

Callaghan aviation programme manager Chris Thomson is another who thinks the CAA rule changes will attract international organisations to test UAV technology in New Zealand, and points to Yamaha New Zealand, which set up an office last year.

Yamaha is planning to apply in the next six months for beyond line of sight flights for its RMAX UAV, which sprays noxious weeds or drops fertiliser on farms that are hard to access on foot or by fixed-wing aircraft.

Business development manager Geoff Lamb said initial use may be for power line inspections, where the RMAX flies along the length of the lines out of sight of the operator. The company has been trialling the UAV's auto-pilot technology to ensure there are no safety issues before applying.

The Canterbury Air Patrol and Christchurch-based Global Aerial Platforms (GAP), which have been jointly developing two UAVs for search and rescue since 2011, are in the process of applying for a halfway step to beyond line of sight flying.

Formerly part of the Coastguard, the Air Patrol holds the intellectual property rights for the communications system within the drones while GAP owns the IP for the composite frames supporting them.

Air Patrol spokesman Gordon McKay said the charity was working on boosting the resolution of images sent via the communications system. It's in the process of applying for Part 102 approval from CAA that would involve observers watching the UAVs once they got beyond the operator's line of sight as an interim step.

GAP consultant Warren Head said it had fielded a flurry of offshore inquiries since the Air Patrol showcased the UAV concept at the World Drones for Good competition in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year. The highlight has been a commercial tie up with a global environmental project consultancy.

The robustness of the smaller variant, Kuaka, has also attracted attention from global agencies for its airborne potential to stream critical information on disasters in all weathers, he said.

(BusinessDesk)

BusinessDesk receives funding to help cover the commercialisation of innovation from Callaghan Innovation.

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