Dr Catherine Ball says drones suffer from a bad reputation. “People think a drone is a little toy or something that delivers a bomb,” she says. “You’ll hear about people flying them illegally and crashing into things, or using them to take photos of their cheating spouses and stuff like that. And that’s what bothers me. This technology is so powerful, so egalitarian, so capable of doing so much good.”
A world leader in drone research, UK-born Ball has delivered a number of firsts by using these unmanned flying machines in environmental and infrastructure surveying. Her drones have monitored bushfires, coral reefs, turtle activity and even pest species, and gathered a range of data to assist in effective ecological and engineering processes.
She explains that it’s not so much drones but rather the data they collect that interests her. “I don’t really geek out on the next big, shiny, hybrid things,” she says with a laugh. “What I love is the idea that something is able to get you information or deliver something that you’ve not been able to do before.
“This technology is so powerful, so egalitarian, so capable of doing so much good.”
“Drones are a great way of translating patterns in nature and enabling us to see them from the place that we would never get to, because it’s either too expensive or the satellites aren’t good enough with resolution, or it’s just far offshore, or it’s just far inland, or it’s just too dangerous to go there. We can go there now and that’s what excites me.”
Ball is currently exploring how drones can be used in humanitarian work, such as delivering blood to remote locations in Africa, assisting people in the aftermath of a cyclone and sending food supplies into conflict zones. She cites the bombing of a UN aid convoy that was delivering food to a rebel-held area near Aleppo in Syria, and adds: “I sit here so frustrated because I know we have the technology already and these people do not need to die.
“You can deliver food using unmanned helicopters that can carry two tonnes. To me, it’s an absolute no-brainer and I’m still shocked that we take so long to actually have that pathway from a realisation that technology can do something, to actually allowing it to do it.”
“It’s just scaremongering to say the robots are coming to take our jobs.”
Ball has a PhD in spatial ecology and is keen to see more women in science and technology fields. She works with groups such as She Flies to promote gender equality in science, technology, engineering, the arts and maths (STEAM) careers. And as managing director of the Elemental Strategy consultancy in Brisbane, she helps clients develop both innovative business strategies and the skills needed to deliver them.
In 2015, she was named Telstra National Business Woman of the Year for her groundbreaking work using drones for marine fauna surveys. The data they collected was used to create 3D-walkthroughs of remote islands, so scientists could assess turtle rookeries without leaving the office.
For Ball, technology is not a threat but a tool. She believes drones will make our working lives more efficient, rather than take jobs away.
“Our agricultural economy is set to increase exponentially over the next 10 years,” she points out. “These technologies are going to enable us to work much more efficiently and look for pests and weeds and manage our crops much more effectively. It’s just scaremongering to say the robots are coming to take our jobs. The robots are coming to make things more effective and more safe, which means we can do more.”