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Australian First Nations Drone Network project initiation

Opinion: Alison Howe, chief executive officer of the National Institute of Strategic Resilience, explores how drone technology can support the sustainable economic development of remote First Nations communities. 

Opinion: Alison Howe, chief executive officer of the National Institute of Strategic Resilience, explores how drone technology can support the sustainable economic development of remote First Nations communities. 

With only 60 rapid antigen tests left, enough to test 10% of the community, the covid outbreak looked set to rage unchecked through town.  In February 2022, Ampilatwatja, 350 kms north of Alice Springs had been cut off by floods; and likewise, nearby Utopia was struggling for critical medical supplies.

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We picked up the phone and messaged Lee Croft at Drone Technology company Department 13;

‘We should do something about this’. 

Department 13 and the National Institute of Strategic Resilience (NISR) had parallel initiatives developing to empower communities with drone technologies and the skills to deploy them.  Department 13 had already invested in community projects in the Pacific and NISR was developing a program for remote communities at home.  As the burgeoning potential use cases escalated during fire, flood and pandemic, the teams decided to collaborate.

NISR had been introduced to Pano Skrivanos from Inlailawatash, in British Columbia, Canada, following a chance conversation with the international strategist and commentator Peter W Singer.  We’d been told of an innovative approach to engaging First Nation communities in creating drone based sustainable skills and projects.  We tracked down Pano and started a long conversation, spanning the covid years.

So far, Pano has overseen the training and development of 8 Indigenous drone stewardship program cohorts, delivered through British Columbia’s First Nations Technology Council.  The model has been to engage with nominated individuals from First Nation communities, who then participate in the 3-week program.  The program combines experiential learning, ground school, and applied learning. Participants bring a community focused drone application use case for development into an operational flight plan in the weeks after training.  This use case project  is then applied back in community.  Participants receive a drone and the qualifications to operate within their community both legally and safely.

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“Drones could be an extremely great addition to every Indigenous Community’s Land Management Toolkit” Pano Skrivanos

Similarly, Department 13 had already scoped out and tested a program to engage women and girls in Pacific Island communities, with an initial emphasis on creating access to quality training leading to jobs in the aviation industry.  Bringing the separate projects into alignment, created a boost to both teams.

The collaboration of Department 13, NISR and Inlailawatash was just the start.  Since then, the project had been donated resources by the National Resilience Project at WithYouWithMe, with Claire Turnerjoining the team to help build the social-return-on-investment case for this not-for-profit initiative.  Claire joins the team from her previous project, working into regional and remote communities in and around Darwin.

‘The Australian First Nation’s Drone Network (AFNDN) will deliver more than drone training, licensing, and experience, it will support the creation of sustainable microbusinesses bringing much needed economic stimulation to regional and remote communities’ says Daniel Joinbee, NISR Project Director.

Daniel, himself a qualified First Nations drone pilot, observes that whilst ‘investing in the creation of regional and remote microbusinesses, we will also be creating a network of drone operators with local knowledge, offering a contingency capability in times of disruption’.  That capability will be monitored and coordinated through Department 13, until an independent, not-for-profit, ROC is established.

The team is seeking to raise $380k in funding for stage one deployment of the Australian First Nations Drone Network.  Funding which will provide, pilot training & licensing (with payload), insurance, use-case based projects, a commercial drone, business start-up facilitation and ongoing support – all within a culturally appropriate and safe context.

It is intended that local microbusinesses will be created spanning the applications of mapping, survey, tourism, logistics and distribution, and environmental monitoring.

In the months ahead the collaboration will see co-design activities, where the learnings from the Canadian First Nations Drone projects, will be shared with Australian First Nations stakeholders and vice-versa.  The team will build and deliver a rolling program to achieve sustainable, drone enabled microbusinesses under a continuing support and monitoring structure, whilst embedding the ability to coordinate this distributed capability in times of local or national need.

This is an exciting opportunity to bring Canadian training and expertise to the region. It will result in further people-to-people connections, a more skilled and capable workforce, and long term gains.  It also provides yet another way for our Indigenous communities to work together.  Drone technology and training provides individuals and communities with options in a variety of areas that would be hard to imagine otherwise.” High Commissioner of Canada to Australia, H.E. Mark Glauser

Alison Howe is the chief executive officer of the National Institute of Strategic Resilience.

Australian First Nations Drone Network project initiation
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