How did you initially get involved with UAVs?

I started flying radio controlled helicopters about five years ago when I got hooked flying my son’s new toy after he went to bed. I ended up buying my own helicopters and joining a club to learn to fly. When UAVs started to appear a few years ago I thought I’d give it a go and have been flying ever since. I was lucky enough to get involved in the exciting Select Solutions UAV program and am working closely with the team to develop and grow a commercial capability for UAV based inspections.

There’s a rumour that you spend a lot of your holidays and free time flying UAVs for pleasure in addition to all the time you spend with them in the course of your job.

Yes, I really like aerial photography and the unique perspective that a UAV gives of our amazing landscape. I like to spend my weekends flying with friends and often go on trips to remote places to capture aerial photographs and video, such as on a recent trip to Arnhem Land in NT (see photograph).

Arnhem Land in NT

What is a UAV?

UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and they’re also known as drones but UAV sounds less militaristic and since our purposes aren’t militaristic, that’s what we prefer to call them.

What purposes does Select Solutions use UAVs for?

We use UAVs to assist with asset inspection in a number of ways. A UAV allows us to capture high quality imagery of hard to reach assets and use that imagery to inspect the condition of an asset. This includes capturing imagery of the tops of distribution poles to identify defects and capturing comprehensive imagery of transmission towers. This provides an efficient and safe means of performing inspections and offers an alternative to traditional methods.

Select Solutions has one of the largest UAV fleets in Australia and has major advantages over competitors including resources and experience. We think of and use UAVs as tools (like cameras) rather than as abstract pieces of technology. Currently, the UAV division is transitioning from the R&D umbrella into the operations unit of the business and is undertaking a number of projects and trials in the power and water industries.

How many UAVs does Select Solutions have?

At the moment, we have 19 UAVs ranging in size from 5 different aircraft manufacturers to ensure we can meet the varying requirements of our different clients.

What are the advantages of using UAVs for asset inspection?

Apart from reducing the requirement for people having to climb towers and other infrastructure such as water reservoirs to perform manual inspection, which can be dangerous, UAV inspection can often be faster and provide photographic evidence of condition for year on year comparison and analysis.

Are there limitations for UAVs?

Of course. UAVs are grounded once winds reach speeds of 45kph but this is the same wind speed at which people physically climbing the structures are required to come down for their safety. And currently we must have line of sight for UAV operation. A future goal for Select Solutions is long-range UAVs that fly beyond the operator’s line of sight. Larger fixed wing UAVs could potentially replace manned vehicles, such as helicopters, as well as removing the requirement for operators to travel to the assets to be surveyed. While this isn’t possible yet, we’re aiming for the day when we can send a UAV on a solo flight to somewhere like Wodonga in the morning and have it return in the afternoon with all the images required without the operator having left the Melbourne office.

Electromagnetic interference can also be a concern when operating UAVs near transmission lines. Select Solutions has unique testing facilities for electromagnetic interference affecting UAVs in use near powerlines so we can understand and mitigate the effects and the risks.

What are the risks of using UAVs?

Surprisingly, bird strike is the biggest risk for UAVs. Some birds actually attack our smaller UAVs thinking they are rivals for their territory.

How do Select Solutions staff learn to fly UAVs?

As of June 2016, we have 17 trained UAV pilots and 10 more are currently in training. Many of our pilots are pole inspectors who have been trained in how to use UAVs as a part of their regular job. All pilots are trained and certified to the rigorous requirements of the Civilian Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and our specialist UAV team does an excellent job of ensuring we comply with the rules and regulations set out by CASA.

Do UAVs require servicing?

UAVs need servicing as much as any vehicle does and we want to make sure our fleet is able to operate safely and efficiently at all times. We undertake basic UAV maintenance in-house but when major services are required, we send the vehicles back to the manufacturers. However, we are currently looking at the possibility of bringing the capability for major services in-house in the future.

For anyone interested in how Select Solutions’ UAVs can assist with their asset inspection activities, who can they contact?

They can contact me by calling 0417 563 001 or emailing gbutcher@geomatic.com.au or John Perkins, our UAV Chief Controller and Operational Manager, by calling (03) 9237 4373 or emailing john.perkins@select-solutions.com.au.