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Chief Remote Drone Pilot takes health project to new heights

Chief Remote Drone Pilot

As the Chief Remote Drone Pilot for Charles Darwin University (CDU), Rebecca Ludgate has a key role in a joint iMOVE project that will trial state-of-the-art medical drones. These will deliver potentially life-saving medicines to Indigenous remote communities in the Top End.

She reports to Professor Hamish Campbell, Director of the CDU-based North Australia Centre for Autonomous Systems (NACAS). NT Health, the university and iMOVE are providing funding for the NT Health Drone Project.

Behind the scenes due diligence

Before Ludgate can take to the flight controls, there’s a wait … on many fronts. Due diligence for one.

“There is so much behind-the-scenes work involved in remote BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) drone flying. People just think it’s about launching and landing, but a big part of my job is organising where we’re going to fly and seeking approvals. There are a lot more challenges and responsibilities than you’d need for a manned drone,” she says.

Before the drone takes off for the first 10 kilometre trial – expected in the New Year– the Civil Aviation Safety Authority must give its approval to fly as well as traditional landowners of the Indigenous communities who live near the take-off and landing sites and along the route. The timing aims to avoid the wet season, which starts late November/early December, when deluges block roads and, therefore, access to remote Indigenous communities. Ludgate is also waiting for the drones, each weighing up to 25kg, to arrive.

“We’ll also have to be vigilant about flying an unmanned aircraft beyond visual line of sight, so where possible, we’ll fly around a known wildlife area. Once you lose sight of the drone, you have to rely on other instruments to see where it is on the map, and what its camera is looking at. It’s next level.”

She’s mindful of the recent incident of ravens attacking drones and, elsewhere, a crocodile is seen lunging out of a waterway to feast on an ABC drone.

“Mindful yes, but we intend to be flying quite some way above the reach of crocodiles. Including the ones that jump for tourists on the Adelaide River!”, said Rebecca.

Pre-flight checks

Given the distance flown, conditions experienced, and importance of the cargo, it should come as no surprise that there’s quite a good deal of work to do to before the drones leave the ground.

First of course, approvals for the flight must be in place, from the landowner, CASA, traditional owners, etc. This can take weeks, and must be initiated well before the intended flight.

On the day of the flight, these are the main checks:

  • Aircraft and camera is serviceable
  • Batteries are charged
  • Check the area on the map you are flying in to be aware of – are there no-fly zones, altitude limitations, emergency runways, geo-fenced boundary airspace?
  • Check the GCS (Ground Control Station) is set up correctly with data input of elevation, Question Nil Height (or QNH, measurement; pressure at sea-level; aviation) and aircraft in use
  • Consult the National Aeronautical Information Processing system (NAIPS) for weather and Notices to Airmen (NOTAM).

The NAIPS processes and stores meteorological and NOTAM information. plus enables the provision of briefing products and services to pilots and the Australian Air Traffic Control platform. A NOTAM is a notice filed with an aviation authority to alert aircraft pilots of potential hazards along a flight route or at a location that could affect the safety of the flight.

  • Radio is set to correct frequencies
  • Antennas raised and boresighted (checking the alignment)

“I’ve not included everything here, but these are the main pre-flight Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) checks, ” said Rebecca.

Clear air, good comms

Despite the challenges, the route they’re looking at has low-density traffic, from one remote community to another in Arnhem Land, so it’s a “good airspace to use”.

Ludgate works closely with the NACAS team to liaise with traditional landowners, running face-to-face workshops on country to discuss the flight route, make adjustments (if needed) and gain approval. They’ll seek CASA’s OK to fly up to 5,000 feet into the air.

“Our big issue is the communication link for initial target of a range of 100 kilometres. How are we going to communicate when there are mobile phone reception and satellite black spots? How do we communicate at the other end? Maybe we need more antennas,” she says.

More to it than meets the (remote) eye

And for those thinking ‘how hard can it be?’ to operate a drone, being a chief remote pilot is quite involved, says Ludgate.

“It shocked me when my former employer, a Boeing subsidiary in Brisbane, said it takes three months to become a remote drone pilot, then you do a six-week maintenance course. Surely it doesn’t take that long to learn to fly a drone, I thought?”

Ludgate’s training focused on 25kg fixed-wing drones, how to launch, fly, and recover them, operate the many pieces of equipment that go with it, and use sophisticated computer software. As well, such drones “fly in orbits, which is not how you fly manned aircraft”. She’s had to do further training and gain more experience to earn the title of Chief Remote Pilot.

Teaching a generation of remote drone pilots

NACAS is already thinking about succession planning by partnering with a vocational education and training provider to offer the Cert III in Remote Drone Pilot Licence from next year. Ludgate will be signing off the competencies in that course and sharing her expertise on field days.

It’s a major move from her own post-secondary education. She studied sociology and media studies as part of her Bachelor of Arts in her home city of Melbourne. She says she was “killing time” until she launched into an aviation career. As a new graduate, she worked at a Brisbane casino, then trained and became a flight attendant, inspired to take to the skies by her dad, a Qantas pilot.

“I looked at his career and thought he had the best job, but when he was flying, there were no female airline pilots, so I thought women work in the aircraft, men fly them, that’s why I wanted to become a flight attendant. Then later I thought, no, I want to learn to fly,” says Ludgate.

She heard some years later that, decades ago, airlines would automatically reject any applications for pilot jobs from women.

Ludgate pivoted from being a Qantas flight attendant to learning how to fly helicopters. Lessons cost her $440 per hour and she needed to clock up to 120 hours. Add to that the maps, books, and exam fees to get her commercial helicopter pilot license equated to what would now cost about $90,000 today, she estimates.

Her first flying job was in Broome, a move she was happy to make because she “adores the heat”.

Flight plan filed for the future

Rebecca has been in the aviation industry for 16 years now and is chuffed to have left flying helicopters for drones.

“Drones is a big industry and it’s getting bigger, developing in a massive way, creating lots of jobs, plus the capabilities of drones keep increasing. It’s a great industry to be part of,” Ludgate says.

“The NACAS team is trailblazing if we can achieve our milestones of delivering medical aid. I think a lot of parties will be interested in the project.”

For now though, this trial is taking place in the Northern Territory. Flying a remote drone across the border into Queensland or Western Australia will mean a lot more paperwork for CASA to consider!

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