Little Ripper Opens New Horizons

Lifesavers at the recent State Championships at Ocean Beach-Umina were among the first to get a look at the new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that is being hailed as a breakthrough in rescue techniques.

The Little Ripper Lifesaver© long-range UAVs will initially be trialled in three locations in NSW – Byron Bay, Hawks Nest and Newcastle in the coming months with the first group of lifesavers who will be trained as pilots and camera operators to begin shortly.

The capability of the technology includes aerial surveillance, search and rescue, shark detection and monitoring or deploying emergency and first aid equipment including floatation devices, defibrillators and survival kits.

A crowd of excited Nippers at the State Championships got a chance to get up close with the UAV with the phrase “that is so cool” a common theme. By the time these youngsters graduate to senior positions within their clubs who knows what these UAVs will be capable of doing.

On hand to see the UAV put through its paces at Umina was one of the founding directors of the project, renowned scientist and the first Australian born astronaut to fly to space in 1984, Dr Paul Scully-Power.

SLSNSW had the chance to catch up with Dr Scully-Power to get his thoughts on the Little Ripper© Project, the challenges, and what this technology could eventually be capable of doing.

Can you give us an overview of your role within the program?

I’m one of the founding directors of Little Ripper Lifesaver and what we’re trying to do is something in the national interest. As you are probably aware the Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter is an Australian icon and what we’re trying to do is bring that concept into the 21st century using these UAVS which are really a mini helicopter that can fly remotely.

We’re currently at the point where we are only just touching on what this technology can do – how long has the idea for this project been in the pipeline?

We've been working on this for a number of years. We actually used smaller versions of what you could call drones during Hurricane Katrina and the technology is now so much more advanced. They can now fly an automatic course, stop, rotate, take photos and so much more.

What are the challenges of operating in the unique Australian environment?

The challenges of operating here are the same as UAVs face worldwide. You are flying in airspace which means there are other planes including light aircraft and helicopters. So that means we have to fit in with all the airspace rules and of course be visible to air traffic control. Once we get through those hurdles you will see integration with UAVS and normal airspace.

From a lifesaving perspective this technology has amazing potential what do you see as the main benefits this can offer to the lifesaving movement?

Obviously it can benefit people in distress. It’s people getting caught in rips, drowning as well. What we’re planning to do and what we’re developing is the technology to drop lifesaving gear to people in distress in the ocean environment.

We will drop a little pod that will automatically inflate when it hits the water. It will have a little life raft so that will be something for them to hang on to. Along with that we will deploy electronic shark repellents which are now available, and a distress beacon, and we are also intending eventually to go further than just the water to help lost bushwalkers and others in difficulty.

What is the next stage for the program?

Well we have a six month trial which is being funded very graciously by Westpac Bank and it’s about getting through the trial and seeing what all the applications are, and I think it will just grow and grow.

As a man of science and while it’s difficult to make predictions what do you see as the future of the UAV?

I think 10 years from now you will see UAVS everywhere. We have to be very careful to make sure that they are integrated with the national airspace. Eventually they will be used for all sorts of things like finding boats at sea, national security, bushfires, floods - I think you will see the UAVS everywhere. The potential is limitless and the technology allows us to do that now.

You must be pretty proud to see the culmination of a lot of people’s hard work take flight?

It’s a hard working team, a very professional team, and we’re working with a whole range of people including Surf Life Saving, Westpac and CASA the regulator. That takes a lot of time and effort, but we will get there. What I want to see is a seamless integration with the rest of the aviation community.

Mon 4 Apr 2016