SADIG Innovation Unmanned Systems - 27 April 2017

Gregor Ferguson, Chair, SADIG Innovation Workshop


The SADIG Innovation Workshop held at CSIRO Lindfield on 27 April, 2017, focused on Unmanned Systems and had presentations from two key Australian players in this rapidly growing, and changing, market sector: 

  • Carbonix Pty Limited, a manufacturer of innovation hybrid VTOL Unmanned Air Systems (UASs – or Drones, more colloquially), represented by its CEO and Founder Mr Dario Valenza, and its Executive General Manager, Mr Jeff Eager. Carbonix manufactures high-technology composite UASs and sailing craft on Cockatoo island in Sydney harbour.
  • Advanced Navigation Pty Limited, represented by Mr Chris Shaw, Director and Lead Hardware Engineer. Advanced Navigation manufactures high-technology gyroscopes, inertial navigation systems and other communications and payload module for UASs and has offices in the UK and USA as well as its head Office in Australia.

They described the challenges they face in developing, respectively, an advanced VTOL UAS and a suite of navigation and payload modules for UASs generally.

By way of background to their presentations, attendees were asked to consider this: a new annual survey of certified remotely piloted aircraft operators is being conducted by CASA to capture the rapidly changing nature of this expanding sector of the aviation community. With drone technology rapidly advancing, while becoming cheaper and more accessible, the Australian remotely piloted aircraft sector has undergone unprecedented growth in recent years. There are now more than 900 certified commercial operators around the nation—a sizable increase from the 14 in 2012.CASA is mindful of this fast-paced environment and wants to track and understand what is changing, where it is occurring and how it could affect safety.

The number of drones in the Australian sky is growing rapidly. Tens of thousands of people now fly drones for fun and thousands more are in commercial and aerial work operations. There are now more than 950 holders of remotely piloted aircraft operator's certificates and nearly 4000 people have notified CASA of their intention to operate in the new under two kilogram commercial category. There are more than 4600 people who hold a remote pilot licence, which authorises them to fly for certified remotely piloted aircraft operators. In 2013 there were 60 certified remotely piloted aircraft operators and 166 remote pilot licence holders. With all this growth in drone operations there inevitably comes a level of complaints or reports of potentially unsafe operations.

Key Learnings

A number of things emerged from both presentations. The first is the importance of customer contact: the process of developing a product solution begins with an understanding of the customer’s needs. The second is the need for an informed customer: too often he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and therefore risks missing out on innovations and potential cost savings or simplification of operations or regulations by not understanding sufficiently both his own business and the technology that’s available in the marketplace. The third was the need to have a ‘champion’ in the customer community who can both advise the supplier and be an advocate. This challenge is amplified considerably when exporting: direct customer/end user contact, and identification of appropriate champions is hard.

In the regulatory sphere a challenge that both regulators and the industry need to grapple with is this: when does a drone become a missile? Is it a matter of intent, or of velocity/mass/payload? And how does one mitigate obvious and less-obvious risks in that regard?

Other learnings emerged from the two presentations; while they came from the presenters who were talking about their own businesses and their own experiences, many of these are generic:

1. Carbonix

  • In a crowded market Uniqueness is vital – this often means going for a high-technology niche and possibly a higher price
  • This requires high technology design and construction to deliver credible capability and achieve a market advantage
  • Nothing is simple in this sector!
  • A high proportion of revenue gets re-invested in R&D – that’s now a given for companies in this sort of market
  • The customer needs to know what he doesn’t know before he can start making truly informed decisions – which means a good relationship is essential between customer and supplier
  • The next big thing which will spur the growth of this market sector is approval to conduct Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) operations in Australia – this will make it possible to introduce services such as extended search and rescue missions, environmental monitoring, infrastructure inspections etc. and the carriage of individuals in autonomous air vehicles.

2. Advanced Navigation

  • Size, Weight and Power demands are the holy trinity of UAS payload manufacturers
  • Accuracy and precision are vital, especially in future UAS-enabled delivery businesses
  • These businesses will be made possible both by BLOS approvals and ubiquitous geo-location of buildings and infrastructure
  • The speed of change in the market is a perennial challenge
  • Advanced Navigation spends as much as 30% of its revenue on R&D
  • Payload integration is a critical skill, especially when dealing with issues such as geo-location and sensor cueing
  • Siting of antennas aboard UASs is a critical issue. These can cause interference as well as drag and might be vulnerable to physical damage. So antenna requirements must be considered by payload manufacturers

3. Government and Academia

The focus here was mainly on the defence and security market

  • The current R&D Tax Incentive is a good thing (but is it sustainable?)
  • The new Centre for Defence Industry Capability (CDIC) was welcomed, but the general consensus was that it hasn’t delivered much as yet because it’s too young. Time will tell if it delivers on its promise
  • Exporting to overseas defence and security customer may become easier as a result of the anticipated defence Exports Policy (expected to be released in the 3rd quarter of 2017). The key issue here is access to the end user/customer and the ability to identify and build a relationship with a ‘champion’ in the customer community
  • In the high-technology niche sectors in which Australian UAS ad payload manufacturers are increasingly working, a close and productive relationship with the university and research community is growing more and more important.