Outback Joe was lost. He had collapsed in the rich, red dirt of barren peanut fields, his neon parka glinting in the Australian sun. In hours, he’d be considered dead of thirst.
Plop. A water bottle landed nine feet away from Outback Joe, who couldn’t reach it because he didn’t have hands. But those nine feet were close enough to win Australia’s biannual UAV Challenge for the Canberra team, which had been operating the drone that located Outback Joe, a dummy.
For the past eight years, the UAV Challenge has been running search-and-rescue competitions in the Australian bush, depositing a dummy dressed in blue jeans and hiking boots in the middle of nowhere for drones to find. The last competition wrapped up last week, after Canberra UAV programmed its 31-pound drone to comb the search area methodically and pick up any unusual shapes.
“Because of the amount of bushland in Australia, it can get manpower intensive to search,” says CanberraUAV team leader Stephen Dade. “The clock’s against you before their condition gets worse.”
Dade, who works as a satellite engineer, directs a team of nine drone-enthusiast volunteers. CanberraUAV won the 2012 competition, too, even though they weren’t able to deliver water to Joe. But as a result of their unpaid work, Dade and his volunteers are now developing technology for real-life civilian applications. CanberraUAV has begun working with a South African wildlife conserve to detect poachers.
“We definitely want to see these technologies used in real-life search and rescue,” Dade says. “I’m thinking in the future we’ll have more people coming to us.”