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PODCAST: Eye in the sky, Keirin Joyce, LTCOL – SO1 UAS, Army UAS (Drone) Sub-Program Manager

PODCAST: Eye in the sky, Keirin Joyce, LTCOL – SO1 UAS, Army UAS (Drone) Sub-Program Manager

While drones are growing in popularity for recreational and commercial applications, Australia is currently one of the leaders in utilising this game-changing capability in defence.

While drones are growing in popularity for recreational and commercial applications, Australia is currently one of the leaders in utilising this game-changing capability in defence.

In this episode of the Defence Connect Podcast, host Phil Tarrant chats with Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce – one of the key officers driving the development of the unmanned aerial system (UAS) program within Army – who shares his insights on the accessibility of the technology for Australian soldiers and how developments in drone functionality are enhancing the capabilities of Australian soldiers on the battlefield.

Join LTCOL Joyce as he shares what the future holds for drone technology in defence, the opportunity for Australia’s defence industry to support drone development, the changes we are likely to see in combat support, and how this technology could potentially reignite the once thriving domestic aircraft industry.

Enjoy the podcast,

The Defence Connect team


Listen to previous episodes of the Defence Connect podcast:

Episode 447: PODCAST: Becoming the world’s most cyber-secure nation, with Cyber Security Minister Clare O’Neil
Episode 446: PODCAST: Local infrastructure – key to delivering Defence capabilities, with Cr Peter Hudson
Episode 445: PODCAST: A growing chorus calls for a national security strategy, with ANU’s Professor John Blaxland
Episode 444: PODCAST: Doing the rounds – the week that was in Defence and defence industry
Episode 443: PODCAST: Unpacking the history of Australia’s defence policy and posture, with Michael Pezzullo
Episode 442: PODCAST: Moving beyond the End of History
Episode 441: SPOTLIGHT: Unlocking Defence performance through infrastructure design, with HDR’s Tim Napper
Episode 440: PODCAST: US Space Force engages with Australian SMEs at AusSpace24
Episode 439: PODCAST: Australia’s growing need for a national security strategy, with Andrew Wallace MP
Episode 438: PODCAST: Delivering Black Hawk in record time and setting the record straight on Army’s Aviation evolution

Announcer:    Welcome to the Defence Connect podcast with your host Phil Tarrant.

Phil Tarrant: G’Day everyone. It's Phil Tarrant, your host of The Defence Connect Podcast. Thanks for joining us today. I've been up early today actually doing a lot of reading to prepare myself for today's discussion. I thought I was reasonably well-versed around this topic, but once I really got stuck into a whole bunch of literature around it both quite heavy academic stuff around, I realised pretty quickly that my level of education needs some sophistication. I'm hoping today that I can walk away from this podcast a lot more informed as you will be as well as we discuss what is an emerging and a very important part of our war fighting capabilities. Today we're going to talk about drones.

I have someone in the studio here who is going to be I think ideal to give us a fair representation of where we are today with this level of technology and where we're going to go to in the future. I have lieutenant colonel Keirin Joyce. He is the head of the army's drone programme, but I'll give the official title here. It's Army UAS Brackets Drone Subprogram Manager. Keirin, how you going? Thanks for joining us. 

Keirin Joyce: I'm well. Thank you, Phil. Thanks for having me. I hope all your listeners are as interested and by the end as excited about army drones as I am.

Phil Tarrant: I think most people today are aware of drones. There's quite a lot of utility both in and outside of defence. Before we come on the air we had a bit of a chat and you spoke about aerial photos for real estate or someone having aerial drone shots with their wedding. There is now a familiarity with drones. I think everyone understands and appreciates and comprehends a rapid growth in technology around drones. Myself and a lot of our listeners can probably do with a greater education about how it's being utilised within a defence context. Before we get going, I just want to cover off a couple of definitions because I think civilians call them drones.

Amateur sort of drone racers and other hobbyists call them drones. In military, sort of parlance, UAVs or UAS. Can you just give us a quick definition of the different clarification around the definitions of drones? Maybe we can use it as part of this conversation to make it easy. 

Keirin Joyce: The army uses the term unmanned aerial system because it's not just about the air vehicle that flies around. It's about all the components that make that work. It's about the soldier or the officer that's flying it, and it's about what you do with the data or the information that you collect. We take a systems approach. That is also how IKO define drones to use the colloquial term. Within drones, there are sub-definitions. I won't go into all of them. We choose to use unmanned aerial systems as the term. Then when we are engaging with the public, we choose to use the word drones because that is the colloquial term that the public like to use.

When we say drones, they just get it. They get that the word drone includes everything from a very small toy or a drone racing machine that anybody can buy in the toy shop, all the way up to a Predator or a Reaper that's used by people like the Air Force. Drones is a colloquial term, but within a technical sense, we use unmanned aerial systems.

Phil Tarrant: UAS or UAV. Maybe we'll stick with drones.

Keirin Joyce: Drones is cool.

Phil Tarrant: I imagine this is a pointy end in army right now. This is preparation for the way in which war battles will be fought in the future, utilising a drone to support it. Down the recruitment path,  so when you are looking for young talented Australians to join the army, what language do you use? Do use drones? Is it come and fly drones or come and join a unit where drones are at its core? Is it UAVs or UASs?

Keirin Joyce: We use both.

Phil Tarrant: You use both.

Keirin Joyce: If we're trying to grab people's attention, we'll use the word drones. Quite frequently around the recruiting circuit or around our public engagement circuit, we'll say things like, "Hey, do you fly drones? Do you want to fly drones? Do you enjoy flying drones? Because if you do, you can fly drones for a job in army." That ranges from everything from just being a drone operator and that's when we then switch terms. When we want to have a formal recruiting discussion, we will talk about being an operator unmanned aerial system, operator UAS. That is the trade that flies drones 365 days a year.

It is an artillery trade, but we also use smaller tactical systems in our combat trades as well. If you are interested in being in the infantry or the cavalry or an engineer and you are also interested in flying drones, you can do that too by being an unmanned aerial system operator as part of being a riflemen or an armoured vehicle driver or a combat engineer.

Phil Tarrant: I know we now have our own UAV/UAS regiment. What's that called?

Keirin Joyce: That is the 20th Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment or 20 STA Regiment in the short form.

Phil Tarrant: When you look at the different units of army and a lot of them have a lot of pedigree engineers, artillery, how would you describe the culture of a drone regiment? Does it sort of deviate much from the norm?

Keirin Joyce: It does. It's like a hybrid between a regular combat support regiment, people that are interested in generating combat efforts for the combat forces, mashed up in a hybrid form with an aviation culture. These are highly procedurally driven soldiers. Everything in aviation is driven by policy and procedures and safety. By virtue of they being artillery men and artillery women, they are also very used to safety and procedures. It's a really great regiment to be in actually because you have a very combat support focus on your mission outcomes, but at the same time you get to do that with high-end technology and in a controlled and regulated environment.

Not to the point where you can't do things, but to the point where those controls and regulations enable you to do the mission. It's a great regiment. I've been posted in there twice.

Phil Tarrant: Keep the focus of this podcast on that I guess train of thought, but I want to ... It's painted really good a picture I feel for the purpose of what I hope to chat about today. What I really want to understand, Keirin, is just where we are at in terms of the development and utility of drones within the army, but also where we're going with it? The Defence Connect Podcast it's very much about the business defence, so the role you feel that industry can play in terms of  supporting our war fighters moving forward. If we achieve that, I think we're going to be doing pretty well with this.

Keirin Joyce: We've only got 30 minutes.

Phil Tarrant: We've only got 30 minutes. I'll try and keep it pretty tight. Can you just give me a quick update on where we're at with drones in the army today?

Keirin Joyce: Yeah, sure. With regards to drones in the army, the future's arrived. For 10 years now, drones have been something that we've been looking forward to or driving towards. The reality that is in 2018 it's here. 2018 and the next couple of years are really going to be a defining moment and a defining opportunity for army and defence and Australian industry getting behind us. That's because we now have a fully tiered UAS capability. That's everything from a Black Hornet, and to give your listeners a bit of a picture of that, that is a very small, we call them micro or nano UAS that literally fits in the palm of your hands.

It's only 30 grammes. It gives you about 30 minutes worth of operation. Goes out to two kilometres to go and have a reconnaissance robotically for the soldier. That's a combat asset. Engineers, artillery, cavalry, infantry use this system. It takes three days to learn how to use, and that's in every combat platoon in the army. Next step up is a Wasp. A Wasp is about 70 centimetres across. It looks like a normal electric robot aeroplane that you put together out of your backpack. You throw it into the air and it stays up for almost an hour. That goes out to five kilometres, and that's a combat team asset. We've got the big guy, the work horse. That's the Shadow.

Shadow is a 200 kilogramme aeroplane that stays up for nine hours and covers a brigade area of operation. It goes out to 100 kilometres and stays out there for many hours looking and watching and finding targets for us. We've got this fully tiered capability now. Everything from combat platoon up to a brigade commander have access to UAS. Can I paint a bit of a vignette about how those systems might be used? If we've got a brigade out in the field and the brigade has tasked a battle group or a combat team to go and do a mission, 24, 48, 72 hours before that mission steps off, a Shadow 200, the big one, is going to go out there and have a look at the area of operations.

They're going to look at choke points and routes and known enemy areas or suspected enemy areas and they're going to create an intelligence picture so that before that patrol or mission even leaves, they have a picture of what's out there. While they are out there, that Shadow will probably be up in the air of operations. If they need that platform to come over the top of them to do a targeting mission or to do a higher fidelity intelligence mission, they can call it over to them, but themselves they have Black Hornet and Wasp in their toolkit. Let's say they're out on a mission and they're coming up to a small village.

They don't know what's in the village. They don't know if it's friendly or hostile. Before they go in, they can launch a Wasp and a Wasp will sit up at 400-500 feet, and it'll provide organic overwatch. With its camera, they can do a full reconnaissance before they even go near the village. Because Wasps stays up for an hour, they might even keep it up and providing overwatch. That just provides a lot of situational awareness and protection for those soldiers before they even go anywhere near those first streets.

Then as they enter the village, instead of sending a soldier or a pair of soldiers down into an intersection where they're in the open, dangerous things can happen there, instead of sending a soldier, they can launch a Black Hornet now at head height. It basically becomes an avatar for that soldier. They can fly it down the street, into the intersection, hover there in the middle of the intersection at two metres height, so essentially being the head, the eyes of a soldier, do a full 360, have a scan around.

If they see anything, they can fly down that street or down that alleyway and have a closer look, and then bring it back, and then you send the soldiers into the intersection once you know that ... Well, once you think that it's safe. From a force protection, from a soldier protection perspective, that's how we can use these systems. That's a really simple vignette. I didn't turn that into really tactical speak, but that's certainly something I think people can relate to just out of what they know from movies or people that they know in the army. A really simple mission that we literally do everyday when we're either exercising or on operations.

That's how we can use the UAVs. That's really exciting. We've got it. Like I said, we've got UAS now in operation in those tiers everywhere from a combat unit through to combat support units like the 20th Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment. We also do drones for fun. I could talk more about that a little bit later, but it is. The future is here, and we've gripped it up. We think it's really exciting.

Phil Tarrant: The utility drones and that vignette that you've just painted I think is a very practical application of how drones are utilised in I guess the modern battlefield. It's very layered and tiered, and there's different applications for different types of drones. The Black Hornet. You have a Black Hornet here with us today. Just to make a visual for our readers, it's smaller than my iPhone. It's an impressive bit of kit, but I can see how that could be utilised. As these systems have come into operational service, how have they been accepted by the soldiers?

Has that been a tough one for them to understand or as soon as you say, "This is how it's used, this is the benefits," do they get it straight away?

Keirin Joyce: They get it straight away especially the younger ones. I say that because a lot of the younger guys and girls that are coming in, they have been playing Call of Duty for 5 to 10 years now. Call of Duty has had organic drone support in support of that first person shooter for more than five years. They're used to seeing an overhead view or sending an avatar down the street. They're used to using it for targeting. You flick a button and you can switch role from being the first person shooter into being the drone operator. The young kids get it.

Phil Tarrant: How about the old salts though? Are they a little bit of a cultural change?

Keirin Joyce: Only from a technology perspective. They get the utility. What isn't as fast as the young people is actually picking up buttonology and being used to having a tablet on their equipment. That's something that old soldiers didn't have until 5 or 10 years ago when we started rolling out this kind of technology.

Phil Tarrant: Moving forward, you've described three different applications with three different systems and the Wasp. You can read about it on defenceconnect.com.au. That acquisition took place was it last year under LAND 129 Phase 4? It's about 100 million bucks I think?

Keirin Joyce: Yeah. We signed the contracts last year and that's a three year rollout under the Integrated Investment Plan. It starts in quarter three this year.

Phil Tarrant: What is the rollout procedure for that? How is that going to get into the hands of our soldiers?

Keirin Joyce: In a nutshell, we strike what's called an introduction into service directive. In the introduction into service directive, we task who has to develop the training, who has to develop the supply chain, who has to manage the systems in the unit. Since contract signature up until now, we've taken care of preparing all of that. We now have an Australian Army Wasp Training Course. It's run by the School of Artillery. They are the UAS training centre down in Puckapunyal. Two times a year they'll bring trainers, non-commissioned officers, bombardiers, sergeants, warrant officers. They'll bring them down to Puckapunyal. That'll give them a 10 day training package.

Then those soldiers go back to their garrisons. If they're a Wasp unit, then they will export the course and they'll run it locally in their unit. Twice a year they'll come down to Puckapunyal that'll train up 16 to 20 trainers every year. They go back to Darwin, Townsville, Brisbane, Adelaide and then they run the courses locally and train as many Wasp operators as the commanding officer wants. That's how we set the training up. Supply chain is done by CASG, the Capability Acquisition Sustainment Group. We have a fleet manager there who their team does Shadow, Wasp and Black Hornet and anything else we bring in in the future.

They run spares, repairs, contracts, all of that kind of backend stuff. We put all of that in place. We get the equipment. We receipt that into the Joint Logistics Unit. All that equipment comes in from the US. In the case of Wasp, we receipt it, catalogue it, send it out to the units. Then on any given day, that's the in service day, all those trained people then have access to their equipment. When it requires repair, there's a supply chain sitting there ready to go. That's the nutshell version of how we establish a new capability.

Phil Tarrant: Do you think we'll get to a point within the army where every operator in the field will access to and will utilise drone technology? Everyone will be carrying around a Black Hornet or something even smaller. Is that the future for us?

Keirin Joyce: I answer the second half of the question first if that's okay.

Phil Tarrant: Sure.

Keirin Joyce: That's will every person in the army have access to a drone? The answer is yes, and we're doing that this year. As well as those tactical systems that I talked about, we also have a programme for drone experimentation, modernization and developing drone literacy. All the way up to the chief, everybody recognises that drones are going to be a big part of the future fighting forces. One way to kick that off and be on the front foot is to buy a commercial off the shelf drone and give it to the entire army. Most of your listeners will probably be familiar with products like the DJI Phantom series of drones.

It's something that you can literally buy at JB Hi-Fi or Harvey Norman or somewhere like that. We're doing a program like that this year that buys enough of those to go out to every unit. I'm not just talking about the regular army. It's every regular unit, every reserve unit, and we're rolling it out to cadets as well. Give us two years, everybody in the entire army will have been exposed to drones. It's a one day training course for a Phantom. It's all online, and everybody can get that exposure. That's the second part.

The first part about answering how far are we planning to go, well, right now under the current white paper and the current Integrated Investment Plan, we have plans to push drones out to the combat section. Right now we've got Black Hornet at combat platoon, and we've got Wasp at combat team. There is a new program coming along called LAND 125 Phase 4. That's the modernization of the soldier combat ensemble, so what a soldier carries on them. Under that program we are scoping, taking a tactical drone down to the section level. Every group of 10 soldiers will have a UAS that they can carry in a pouch.

When their commander tells them to, they could pop it out and launch it within a couple of minutes and start completing missions. That's where our plan has it going right now in the next 5 to 10 years. If I was to grab a crystal ball, yeah, I reckon it's going to go even further than that after another 5 or 10. I mean this technology is getting cheaper, smaller and easier to use. Right now all of our systems are robotic. They're automated, but they're not autonomous. Technology is driving autonomy to the point where you won't even need to three days to train as a drone operator.

You'll need a day just to figure it out. Tell the drone maybe with your voice or maybe just with a couple taps on a tablet go here and the drone will go there itself. You won't need to fly it anymore. That technology is coming.

Phil Tarrant: It's coming.

Keirin Joyce: It really is.

Phil Tarrant: We'll have a chat about that and how industry can help us out there. I'm quite interested in how much of the head space of senior leadership in army drone technology is taking. Is it from the top down? This is a very important part for it's not really modernization of the army, it's where it needs to be today and into the future. Is this an important component of big thinking within army?

Keirin Joyce: It is. I think it's recognised that drones are a game changing technology. Take that term changing for what you will, but getting cheap miniaturised technology into the hands of soldiers is game changing. Things like that vignette that I painted, just not having to send a soldier into a fire lane in an intersection is something that every commander wants. Every commander from a lieutenant commanding a platoon, all the way up to the chief of the army. If we don't have to put that solider in danger, they want that technology. It is. It's embraced right up to the top. The chief is army's voice on investment committees.

Every one of our projects that goes up, he is the voice that fights for the money and gets our projects approved. He does that quite passionately. Everybody underneath the chief, from the head of Land capability, down all the way to project managers like me are right behind it.

Phil Tarrant: It's a shared vision obviously.

Keirin Joyce: Absolutely. Everybody knows it's a big part of the future. We're not quite sure just how big the future of war fighting construct looks like for drones and robotic systems, but we know it's going to be a big enough part that we have to get behind it and embrace it.

Phil Tarrant: Where would you rate our thinking and application of drone technology today versus some of our international counterparts and allies, the Americans, the British, the French? Are we having the right conversations do you think in terms of that way?

Keirin Joyce: Absolutely. I would be as bold as to say that after the things that are happening in the next 12 months have finished, we will be the most unmanned army in the world per capita. We'll never be able to match it up against the mass of the United States.

Phil Tarrant: Just through scale.

Keirin Joyce: Through scale. Per person, we'll be the only army in the world that every soldier has access to a drone and can become drone literate and understand how drones work. We are the only army so far that's pushed combat drones down to a combat platoon with our Black Hornet Programme. We're riding that wave. We know it's important. Right from the top, we're resourcing the plans.

Phil Tarrant: I guess to get a little bit academic on this, obviously you painted the picture of how accessible drone technology is today for anyone, both for civilian and military purposes. When you look at emerging threats that we have in a modern battle space and the type of adversaries that we are now in combat against, this sophistication with drone technology and utility is alike entry for them to have similar capabilities. What's the thinking around that and how that warfare will be fought?

Keirin Joyce: I think it is an obvious observation that the proliferation and access to drone technology means that insurgent forces can generate what we would describe as an air force these days. That is a challenge for us because sometimes they can move as fast or maybe even faster than standard Western forces when it comes to adaptation, but the technology that they have access to is commercial technology. They don't have access to military grade technology. While it is a challenge, it is a challenge that is being actively worked on.

While I'm a lieutenant colonel army headquarters responsible for unmanned aerial systems and drones, just around the corner from me is another lieutenant colonel who is responsible for counter UAS. We have some of the world's best technology and best concepts in development also for countering unmanned aerial systems. It's a challenge. It's a challenge we will overcome, but you're right. The proliferation means that we are challenged by it and we will see it more in the future.

Phil Tarrant: I think it's obviously a collective approach in that ... This is a role that industry can play because the commercialization of drone technology and accessibility to essentially anyone who can go to whatever the equivalent of a JB Hi-Fi is in some of the areas of the world and pick up this tech. Industry can help sustain the advantage that army has or the military has in the modern battle space. Innovation has obviously and always has been key to advantages in military sphere going back for decades and centuries in warfare. If this is the pointy end of where the Australian army can have advantages, what do you say the role of industry to help them achieve that?

Keirin Joyce: We see it as a very strong role. We know by recognition of this game changing technology that we need to stay at the leading edge if we are to maintain our combat edge. We see academia and industry in Australia as being very capable of supporting us in that we know that Australian academia and industry has some of the smartest people and companies in the world. I can give you an example of just one of the things we're doing. The Wasp is already three year old technology. We have a replacement scheduled for that in the early '20s. Army generally acknowledges that UAV technology runs on a 10 year cycle to maintain the edge. We will only use Wasp for about 10 years.

We've already gotten a new phase of LAND 129 scheduled. That's LAND 129 Phase 4 Bravo with world leading technology." The way we did that was to use the Defence Innovation Hub We launched a special notice. We were the first special notice. We're the pilot special notice to go out. We did that mid last year.

We said, "Hey, Australia. Tell us what you would do to make a future Wasp. What's the Australian solution in the early '20s when it comes to aerodynamics and power trains and sensors for what is the future of Wasp?" To give you some metrics, we got 47 submissions from academia and industry. It was huge. It was a big body of work. We took that down to 18. We requested 18 to do full proposals for us. We are going ahead with contracts with three of them. The chief announced that at the ADM Congress in February. In parallel, there's other companies that are doing work with us in the small UAS space that weren't part of the special notice.

People have just come through the open door in the hub as well. There's another three that we're actively working on there. When I'm talking about this, I'm talking about companies as big as Textron Systems Australia down through mediums like Sypack and Flight Data Systems, down to startups like JAR Aerospace out of Sydney, all the way down into universities. The University of Sydney is doing some work with us as well. They're all working on total system solutions for what the future of Wasp looks like. Then we've got other really exciting companies like UAV Vision that are working just the payload solution.

They're working on a concept that pushes everything we want from a sensor payload into one little black box that they could plug into any one solution. We've got some really great people out there. Everything from universities and startups, up to big defence corporations that are working on some really exciting topics for us. We're very confident that Australian industry will complete Phase 4 Bravo in the early '20s because of this.

Phil Tarrant: This is a genesis I guess of sovereign drone capabilities really, isn't it?

Keirin Joyce: Yes.

Phil Tarrant: That's exciting.

Keirin Joyce: It is especially because Australia used to have an aircraft industry. That whittled away, and then this has become exciting because Australia could essentially get back into aircraft through drones. It's completely feasible. The companies all have great engineers and business people on staff. I have no doubt at all about Australian industry's capability. I talked about LAND 125 Phase 4, the new nano one that's coming along in the early '20s. Miniaturisation of technology, it ain't hard. It's happening.

There is no reason why any of these companies that are working, any of the companies in collaborations that are working on something the size of a Wasp in five years time wouldn't be able to compete the nano project as well because they just make the circuit cards and the motors and the data links and GPS systems smaller and smaller. It's happening. Industry is doing that for us anyway. There's no reason why they couldn't compete that with an Australian competitor either.

Phil Tarrant: I did a podcast with defence industry minister Christopher Pyne the other day. He painted the picture previously people in uniform would see someone from industry coming down the corridor and they duck around the side and wouldn't want to chat to them. Whereas today it's very much the opposite as in people in uniform are actively going out to engage with industry because they see the benefits of collaboration and connectivity to be part of the story. What you've just painted there is definitely that. If people working within industry today, you guys are open for business. You want to talk, don't you?

Keirin Joyce: Absolutely. As an example of that, the Australia Association for Unmanned Systems is the industry body that represents all the drone manufacturers and trainers and developers and universities in Australia. They have generally three conferences a year. We go to every one. If the conference topic has something to do with army, they ask us to, and we absolutely jump at the opportunity to tell industry and academia what we're up to, where we're thinking and to talk about mechanisms for how they can help us. That is genuinely enjoyable and exciting.

Phil Tarrant: There's no idea or applications too left of field now. It's about really challenging where we can take drone technology into the future and harnessing those great ideas, the innovations that Australians are so well-renowned for. It's a big opportunity. It sounds like this cultural shift of the military embracing industry is well underway and is exciting to see.

Keirin Joyce: I think that our industry has the potential to lead globally as well.

Phil Tarrant: On an export perspective, which is very important.

Keirin Joyce: From an export perspective. Because these aircraft are small, you don't need massive manufacturing precincts to set up a production line. Because they're small, you can have decentralised production all over Australia and just bring components together into a relatively small warehouse or factory to put it all together. There is no reason why an Australian company can't win our future contracts and through that success have global export success as well. No reason at all.

Phil Tarrant: What you say is very encouraging. This would trigger a lot of ease because they're saying, "This is what we want to hear, and this is the way we need to go." It is combined. It's a collective agenda for everyone to not only increase our own capabilities, but if we can build export potential around this particular section, it's great for the economy. It's great for training and innovation sort of stuff.

Just reflecting on your role, if you think back to where you've ended up today and sort of highly involved in developing Australia's army drone capabilities, it's probably a good place to be because it's suddenly become more and more relevant, more and more specialised moving forward. How did you end up being the drone guy within the army?

Keirin Joyce: I got lucky.

Phil Tarrant: Yeah?

Keirin Joyce: I started my career as an aerospace engineer. Rewind 12 years ago, army aircraft were helicopters, but 12 years ago, we approved a startup team to generate what is now known as 20 STA Regiment. I was one of the five people that were thrown in at that. I was the engineering officer. I got brought across from helicopters to do that. I had no idea what was in store for me at that time, but 12 years later, I'm still here. I keep asking to be here because it's exciting. It's a field that you can enjoy the pace of it.

If you enjoy the riding the wave of technology and knowing that what you're doing is having a game changing effect on what soldiers do and how soldiers are being kept safer, then it's great to be in. The other thing that's really exciting about that, I'm a STEM guy. It means I also get to actively participate in the drone program STEM outreach activities. We have a lot of that going on as well.

Phil Tarrant: I'm quite interested in your take or observations on this new drive of kids coming out of school and into university who are going to be the next generation driving this forward and the work that you're doing.

Keirin Joyce: The first thing we are doing is just actively getting out and engaging. We see it as an opportunity. The community knows that drone's a game changing technology. There is nobody better in Australia to talk about drones than the Australian Army and 20 STA regiment. We've been doing it for more than a decade. We are the largest most experienced safest drone operator. Nobody's going to overtake the Australia Army in scale in Australia until somebody like a Google or an Amazon have success with drone stuff. We're the main game. That means we've got the right to talk about it, and that's really cool.

We get out to Avalon Air Show, to the World of Drones Congress. Coming up in May, we'll be at the Civil Security Conference in Melbourne. We'll be doing World of Drones Congress again in August, and then Land Forces of course in  September. We can just have conversations and get people talking about why drones are great for the Australian Army, for the Australian Defence Force and Australian industry. The outreach piece is the really exciting stuff. It's about getting in and talking with the youth. We're talking about young civilians. We got to things like Questacon activities, the National Science Museum, the National Science Week activities.

We send people to the National Youth Science Forum and the ad for open day just so we could show the young people out there in Australia some of the things we're doing. We engage with our cadets, ADF cadets, through their camps. I talked about the commercial programme we're doing. We're providing the equipment and the training base for army cadet elective number two, the drone elective. Everyone of those cadets around Australia will have access to the same drone that's sitting in every army unit and the same training package that is in every army unit and getting that kind of conversation out there.

We have an arrangement, a collaboration with She Flies. She Flies is a STEM outreach that's specifically targeting technology in girls. We've sent our lady drone operators from 20 STA Regiment along to two camps for last year, and we're looking to increase that contribution to She Flies. We also have the Army Drone Racing Team. That is our best racers from all over Australia constitute the team. They operate under our racing association. They went and competed at nationals last year. In July, they'll be very shortly getting a hit out at drone opens in Picton next month. They also go to ADVA and the World of Drones Congress and the cadets and family days.  

We drone race and show people what kind of technology they can get off the shelf and really enjoy after hours when they're not doing their army job. The reason we're really excited in drone racing is because those kids are all self-taught. Nobody goes to TAFE anymore to learn how to build a drone. They jump on YouTube and they watch a couple of videos. They order all their components online, and these kids at home self-taught not in schools, not in TAFEs, are teaching themselves aerodynamics, mechanics, soldering, coding, all these great skills to build their drone racing.

After a day flying at their local park or with their local club, they come home and they become multimedia technicians. They cut their own videos and they post it to social media. Everyone of these kids is being a Red Bull Air Racer for cheap. Anybody can be a Red Bull Air Racer with a drone racing machine because you wear the googles, and you're fully immersed. You can do even harder tricks than a Red Bull Air Racer does. It's a really exciting motor sport. Those kids they want to talk drones. When they want to have that conversation with army, it's not just about being a UAS operator. I mean that would be great if they want to come 20 STA and just be a drone operator.

Soldering, coding, multimedia, mechanics, electronics, that's the skillset for every technical trade in army. We don't want them to just be a drone operator. Great if they want to, but if the pipeline for that trade's full, then how about being an electronics technician? How about being a radio technician? How about being a multimedia technician? How about being a combat solider, but also flying drones as a secondary skillset? That's why it's really exciting and why we're investing heavily in the outreach. We have an army STEM strategy. We have an army robotics and autonomous systems strategy. Drones just drops in on top of that as tool really easily.

Phil Tarrant: Happy to report to our listeners, I find this really encouraging, Keirin's enthusiasm. He obviously loves what he's doing. It's good to see we have a new generation of leadership coming through the army who are going to be keeping the pedal down on this and making sure that into the decades ahead that we are well-equipped in terms of drone technology. The fact that we've got such a passionate group of younger people coming through who want to do this rather than we've got to sell them into the idea of doing this is a very positive thing, which means that hopefully we can say the pointy end of the development of drones. The message to industry I think is clear. Get involved.

If you've got an idea, a new application, a new utility, a new way of thinking about how to utilise drones and how the army might be able to benefit from it, you guys are open for business. You're going to be at Land Forces. You're happy to just have a chat with anyone?

Keirin Joyce: We'll be at Land Forces with a stand. We recently got approval to have an indoor netted drone flying area, so you can come along and talk to the drone racing team. You can come along and talk to Black Hornet operators who will be flying inside that flying area. You'll see us on the cards as well. Like I said, CIVSEC is the next one in May.

Phil Tarrant: In May. That's right.

Keirin Joyce: The commanding officer of 20 STA will be talking there about how army can contribute to civil security and humanitarian assistance disaster response missions. That in itself is very exciting for us, Phil. Not everybody can go to a flood zone or a hurricane zone and just punch UAVs up and help out the control and coordination of those things. We can, and we've got the capability and the people to do that. He'll be talking about that at CIVSEC in May. Then Land Forces you'll probably see people from Rod's organisation and from my team talking about industry, the future, projects, collaboration, all those good things that are part of this very exciting programme.

Phil Tarrant: It is very exciting. A point I would make just to summarise also is this development towards sovereign capabilities around drone infrastructure. I think that's a great objective and something I know industry will get behind. Also, an export perspective we're trying to turn into a major defence exporter. We do have some pedigree in aircraft manufacture. I think this is probably the opportunity to get back in the international stage. Keirin, I've enjoyed chatting to you. Keep us in contact of what you're doing. The thing that drone technology is shifting so quickly, we could probably get you back on pretty soon, and you'll tell us something new and exciting going on.

Keirin Joyce: I'd love to come back in a year and tell you how some of these development contracts have gone with these exciting startups. There are some really exciting young people out there with STEM backgrounds that just want to do good things corporately for defence and shooting towards globing success. I'd love to come back.

Phil Tarrant: That'll be good. Lieutenant colonel Keirin Joyce, thanks for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Keirin Joyce: Thanks very much, Phil.

Phil Tarrant: Remember to check us out at defenceconnect.com.au. If you're not subscribing yet to our morning marketing intelligence so you're the first to know what's going on in defence and drone technology, defenceconnect.com.au/subscribe. Also, if you've got any specific questions to Keirin or around UAS/UAV drones, contact the team if you'd like This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I'll be happy to make an introduction where required. If you like social media and that's where you get are information, just search Defence Connect. You track us down. We'll be back next time. Until then, bye, bye.