The sky’s the limit for drone research at Western

A drone in flightThe DJI Inspire 1 drone will be at the heart of the DRTU. It will be equipped with a HD camera for video and still images and an infrared camera for thermal imaging. Image copyright: IMC (2017)

Western Sydney University is going sky high in the pursuit of cutting-edge research and innovative teaching.

In 2018, the University will launch its new Drone Research and Teaching Unit (DRTU).

Dr Sebastian Pfautsch from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology has led the establishment of the DRTU, which he says will centralise activities involving remotely piloted aircrafts (RPA) – or drones – at the University.

“Initially used for aerial surveillance by military, police and firefighting authorities – in recent years, drones have become popular for a rapidly increasing number of applications,” says Dr Pfautsch.

“Drones are regularly used in the agriculture, forestry and natural resource management sectors, as well as in the real estate, film and traffic industries. A growing number are also used for recreational and within Universities we use them for research and teaching purposes.”

At Western Sydney University, there are a number of useful applications for RPA technologies, including:

  • Research: mapping of urban heat, forensic investigation, land use change, fauna surveying, precision agriculture, energy management, bridge surveys, building performance, drought assessment, insect/disease monitoring.
  • Teaching: undergraduate and postgraduate courses in arts, creative industries, engineering, forensics, social and environmental sciences, tourism and urban planning.

Dr Pfautsch says the DRTU will be of direct benefit to the University, by facilitating and improving access to the latest aerial technologies.

“In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulates the use of drones – which it defines as being either ‘commercial’ or ‘recreational’. Currently there is no classified use for research and education purposes,” he says.

“For Universities, this is a grey area of legislation that can be complicated and confusing to navigate. Researchers and teaching staff may not be fully aware of the rules governing the use of drones, or their responsibilities as drone operators.”

Under DRTU, Dr Pfautsch says all drone operations at the University will be considered commercial – an approach which provides the best mode of safety for pilots and aircraft; provides liability insurance cover; and ensures the professionality of all operations.

Through the DRTU, staff will have access to formal training in the form of a Remote Pilot Licence (RePL). Staff will be able to book and hire drone equipment and access drone-based mapping software applications.

Through the DRTU model, the University will also be able to negotiate with CASA the use of drones in designated ‘no fly’ zones – such as in the regions surrounding the University’s Hawkesbury campus, which is located near the Richmond RAAF base.

Western Sydney is the first Sydney-based University to formalise its drone operations, and it is expected that the DRTU will improve its capacity to conduct cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary research.


11 December 2017

Photo: IMC (2017)

Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer