PODCAST: Drones in defence - changing the shape of modern warfare

Drones in defence: changing the shape of modern warfare
The team from Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Group – Nine, including contractors from Insitu Pacific, on Scan Eagle Hill at Multi National Base - Tarin Kot

The application and implication of drone technology is changing the face of combat. Some defence strategists and key ADF leadership claim the majority of war fighting will be conducted by unmanned platforms within 50 years, with all arms of the military working at pace to embrace drone technology.

The federal government is firmly behind this, and remotely-operated platforms are a key priority of the $640 million Defence Innovation Hub.

In this episode of the Defence Connect Podcast, we discuss this evolution with Ron Bartsch, one of Australia’s preeminent influencers on drones, president of the Australian RPAS Consortium and co-author of the new book, Drones in Society.

Ron discusses Australia’s world-leading position in legislation and controls over the usage of drones. In addition, he talks about the need to maintain this position and drive ahead with a whole-of-government solution to ensure Australia develops and maintains its advantages. He also explores how a dedicated, strategic focus on drone development offers battlefield superiority not only in the delivery of ordinance, but also with surveillance and intelligence.

Enjoy the show.

 

 

 

 

Phil Tarrant:

G'day everyone, it's Phil Tarrant here. I am the host of the Defence Connect podcast. Thanks for joining us. Going to have an interesting chat I think today, something which I've been trying to improve my knowledge on recently quite a lot considering the changing way in which ... I guess the changing nature of warfare and in particular some of the activities and situations currently under play in Syria and the Middle East and the way in which our armed forces and our allied armed forces are engaging combatants.

 

 

We're going to talk about drones today and there's quite a lot in the media around drones at the moment from a civilian perspective, a lot of applications in the civilian market but there's also many applications in the defence space and the way in which not only is it providing a vehicle for delivery of ordnance but it's also a way in which our soldiers, our sailors, and our airmen can actually have eyes on the ground. So what I've done, I've put an expert into the studio who is going to talk everything about drones. I've got Ron Bartsch in the studio. He's from the Australian RPAS Consortium. Ron, how you going?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Not too bad, thanks for coming.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So my introduction about the changing nature of warfare and the way in which drones can play that role. The business that you're part of, of which you're president, RPAS, what does that stand for?

 

Ron Bartsch:

RPAS is the abbreviation for remotely piloted aircraft system, so that is the technical name. Also known as unmanned aircraft system, but if we call them drones I think everybody knows what we're talking about.

 

Phil Tarrant:

Yeah I think we'll keep it drones, it's nice and generic. ADF is talking quite a lot about drones and the uses of drones moving forward. They're talking about sovereign drone technologies and a lot of the investments that's going to go into one of the funds recently announced by Chris Pyne, they want to look at how they can use the innovative capabilities of our local or domestic manufacturers to support the development of drones in the Australian market. What's your overall perceptions towards drones and drone development over the years? You've been involved for quite some time. Where we are today versus where we are five years ago, 10 years ago, it's a completely different paradigm, isn't it?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Yeah, it is. The technology's developing very rapidly, but with it also developing the industry and the support services and products that are associated with that. Australia I suppose has been quite unique in that it was back in 2002 that the civil aviation safety authority was the first country in the world to introduce any form of civilian regulation for drones. But our military had been successfully using the Heron drone in Afghanistan, but it's only now I guess closer to home that they realise that there's a variety of applications that a drone can do probably more effectively and at a lot less cost than traditional manned aircraft.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So people within the ADF are saying that most fighting in the next 50 years will be done by machines and will be done from the air, in terms of the drone technology. What's your view on that? Is that the way the whole nature of warfare is going to go?

 

Ron Bartsch:

It probably is. It's interesting to note that in the US there's more drones than fixed wing aircraft or traditional manned aircraft. It's because I guess an emergence of, or the convergence, of three different technologies. What we've got is a lot more effective power plants, whether that be small jet engines or turbo props or electric motors. Along with the power plant, like batteries more long lasting batteries and lighter batteries. Then you've got the other technologies of GPS, pinpoint accuracy, a lot cheaper, and a lot lighter. Finally you've got very good quality, high definition, high resolution cameras and also audio detection. So combine all those three together and you've got a capability that simply wasn't available at the price through traditional manned aircraft.

 

Phil Tarrant:

And there's the usage of drones in today's ADF. There's guys who can carry a drone around in their backpack and they can launch it. I think they can get an hour's worth of flying time and push it out to five Ks or so, all the way through to large drones, which can deliver ordnance. Where's it going to go in terms of our ADF? What other applications are we going to start seeing the usage of drones moving forward?

 

Ron Bartsch:

The traditional usage of the drone in a military context was for surveillance and also for launching either missiles or some form of device on them. But I think what we'll see is because you've now got nano drones or micro drones that can be the size of a finger nail. So they can be used for intelligence in gathering information, not only for the military, but also for law enforcement agencies. So for example, it may been able to be used during a siege that you'd be able to have a micro drone or a nano drone inside to be able to gather intelligence that would otherwise not be available. But at the other extreme, you've got super sonic drones now that can travel at faster than twice the speed of sound. So it's just really up to the imagination as to what they can be used for, either in a civilian or in a defence or military mode.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So the definition of a drone then is pretty much anything which is an unarmed aerial vehicle, is that pretty much a fair definition?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Drone is I guess an unmanned aircraft. So you can't by definition differentiate between a drone and any other sort of aircraft, if you consider that every aircraft flying today can be a drone because it can be piloted remotely. Where the difficulty arises, if you have fully autonomous systems, which don't have any interaction or involvement of the human being, then that creates a whole additional set of problems and particularly legal problems. Who's liable for an aircraft or a drone if there's no human intervention? So it becomes quite scary if you have a look at that in terms of the application.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So yourself and a number of your colleagues have recently published a book, Drones in Society, did I get that title right?

 

Ron Bartsch:

That's correct. Drones in Society.

 

Phil Tarrant:

What was the overall thrust of that? How much of it had a military application versus civilian application?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Within that book it was just saying, recently being released in the last couple of months, but it gives an overall awareness and education to people just in terms of what drones are capable of. I know the military have invested heavily in drones and that's going to continue, but what the book essentially says is that the civilian application of drones and the use of them within a military context as well is something that's going to really expand in the next few years, even on top of what's happened. And Australia, by virtue of the fact that we were the first country in the world to have any form of civilian regulations, is at the forefront and ideally positioned to benefit from this in terms of products and services within the drone sector.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So the 2016 Defence White Paper, there was a provision in that for the ongoing investment in development of drone technology, the White Paper said, they're introducing enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, including armed, medium altitude, unarmed aircraft in the early 2020s with regular capability upgrades to follow. So the government is going to be spending in this area.

 

 

Obviously I mentioned beforehand, Chris Pyne. He announced that the defence innovation hub is going to be focused on developing drone technology. I spent some time in Avalon as did you recently, the air show, there's a big focus on drone stuff there. I think from the readings that I've done, the governments, well the defence has acknowledged that it's probably not where it should be in terms of its usage of or development of drone technology. If you put that against the point that you made where we're quite advanced in a civilian sense in terms of legislation or rules of using drones. What's our local manufacturing capabilities like in terms of the development of drones? Are we on par with what's going on in the rest of the world, or are we pretty advanced?

 

Ron Bartsch:

In terms of military capacity, there's other countries such as the United States, Northrop Grumman, Boeing Corporation and also Israeli company, Elbit Systems, they've got very, very sophisticated drones that have been developed purely for military context. But within Australia, we've got manufacturers developing and manufacturing at the rate of one drone per week or small jet drones with a wingspan of about 2 metres. That's quite amazing that we've got this technology and this support industry there.

 

 

But what I think really needs to be done is that whilst there's different applications for a civilization and defence mode, what we've got to do is have a whole of government approach and have all the stakeholders there because if military application's going to be used, at some stage they're going to share the same airspace as civilian aircraft, and so therefore there's got to be at least an equivalent level of safety of those defence aircraft.

 

 

If anything, there's been a convergence between air force and defence and civilian with the recent One Sky Initiative with airports, which have been previously civil, military airports. The airspace, when aircraft are flying, they don't know whether they're military or civilian. So therefore the standards and the safety to which they're operated has got to be the same.

 

Phil Tarrant:

For those businesses involved in Australia in developing drone technology, so I guess versus the capabilities internationally, do you think that we're going to have a burgeoning or a vibrant local manufacturing market for drones or do you think we're always going to be bringing it out from overseas and utilising that equipment or those capabilities and engaging into our needs of our ADF? How do you see that playing out?

 

Ron Bartsch:

I think initially, it will be a combination of both; the air force and the navy have recently made large purchases and orders for overseas produced drones, but we do have a local industry and we have got a local industry that is developing. I think what we've got to do and this is part of the government's innovation and technology strategies, I think we've got to think clever now, we've got the ability with the head start if you like that we've got since 2002 when the first regulations came out. Bear in mind, America only got similar such regulations in August last year. So that gives us 16 years head start where we've had an industry that's developed to support it, with products and services.

 

 

So I think what really needs to be done, almost probably requires a summit, to get together all the players, a whole of government approach. I'm talking federal and state government, because the problem is irrespective of the capability or the capacity of a particular drone, if it's to be used to its full extent, and that's both within a military and a defence context, it's got to be safe and it's got to be reliable and it's got to have the integrity and the robustness to be able to operate effectively.

 

 

So what's needed is international standards. Unlike any aircraft in the past, the International Civil Aviation Organisation in Montreal have promulgated international standards. There's no such standards, international standards for drones. That is what's going to hold us back. So by the governments getting together, and Australia has been the leader in the international forum in this regard, we've got to get a standard so that we can operate them consistently throughout the world so it can be seamless between nations, but also seamless between the military and the civilian application.

 

Phil Tarrant:

Interesting. We've spoken about the use of drones in a defence sense, in terms of intelligence gathering, surveillance, and also the delivery of ordnance. But there's a lot of other applications for drones in a defence or a military context, and that's delivery of urgent medical attention, long term maritime surveillance for border protection. There's a lot more usage of these drones, isn't there?

 

Ron Bartsch:

There is. A couple of applications, if you considered the government spent a fair bit of money and effort searching for MH370, at great expense. $70, $80 million dollars. That could have been done a lot more effectively and at a lot less cost if we had used drones for that. The difficult we have is operating them in international waters, in the absence of having international standards. They're prohibited from operating.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So it's completely restricted, so we can't deploy drones out there?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Yeah, well international waters, you can't operate unmanned aircraft at this stage. So we're being hamstrung by the lack of international regulations. You were mentioning with medical applications, part of what the consortium is doing at the moment, the Asia-Pacific RPAS Consortium, is that we're working to have a look at medical applications of drones, the prospects of delivering organs or vital medical supplies. It's not unheard of to think about the future, not so distant future, of being able to deliver human organs by drones that are travelling faster than the speed of sound between countries. You can imagine the prospects. A lot of people die unnecessarily because they're unable to find suitable donors.

 

 

If we had increased the capacity just to the north, we've got Indonesia with 250 million people. If we included just that in the catchment of being able to have human transfer of organs, that could save many lives. And military application as well, bringing troops back from the front line without a pilot, and that's what we're looking under the Angel Drone project, is to put paramedics or doctors at roadside trauma. Similar applications could happen in a military context.

 

Phil Tarrant:

The mind boggles about the into the future, the applications of drones, because you speak to Amazon and Google now. Amazon's going to start delivering your packages via drone, I think pizza's getting delivered by drones. That's all very gimmicky, but the actual application in terms of human life and survival of human life or battlefield casualties, the usage of drones, it's just impossible to think about how it's going to go.

 

Ron Bartsch:

Well, the technology is continuing to evolve at such a rapid pace, the detect and avoid system built into aircraft, the pinpoint accuracies of GPS units within the aircraft, allow them to be able to operate. If you consider that the majority of accidents that happen in aircraft, whether military or civilian, are usually human related. So if you can control the human aspect or eliminate that human aspect, then the prospects of flying missions and tasks more safely and more effectively is very real.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So how did you end up as an expert in drones? What's your backstory, because if you're going to think 20 years ago what industry you'd want to be in, it's probably a pretty good industry to be in right now.

 

Ron Bartsch:

Look, I've been in aviation industry for my last 35 years commercially, both as a pilot and also as I was actually head of safety for Qantas. I've been a regulator with Civil Aviation Safety Authority. I guess it was a natural progression. People have described that the advent of the drone is as significant to the aviation industry as we'll see advent of the jet engine. So you have a look at the fact that every aircraft flying today could be flown without a pilot onboard, but beers and pizzas may be one aspect, but the real area that excites me and I guess what drew me into this sector of aviation was the benefits to society and the benefits to mankind that can occur through the use of drones.

 

 

So I think it's just really, forget about the limitations because the limitations are only limited by our imagination. If you think about drones 10 years ago, you were thinking they just only had a military context, but the fact is they can do tasks now so much cheaper, so much more effectively and so much safer, and the benefits, they're out there now, it's just a matter of us being able to realise those benefits by getting everybody together, round the table, not only at a domestic level. We need to do that initially, but then at an international level. There's no reason why Australia couldn't be the leader in this.

 

Phil Tarrant:

The prospects of that is I think it's strong and it's good for us to pave the way and take a leadership position on this, as I've expanded my knowledge around drones, the different applications and usage of them moving forward is huge, and I can see why the ADF is saying that the majority of war fighting will be done by drones into the future. The people involved in drones in Australia, do you see yourself a sub-sector or sub-industry of aviation or do you view yourself as your own industry, a drone industry? How do you frame that?

 

Ron Bartsch:

There are industry bodies in the Consortium and other industry associations, but really it is knowing the drone is just a simply, a different type of aircraft, and really you can't by definition differentiate between a drone and any other aircraft. That's probably the main reason why the International Civil Aviation Organisation has so much difficulty in promulgating the regulations for it. Even just a little way into the future, if we are able to get everybody together and Australia, with the innovation and technology agenda, is perfectly positioned with the fact that we've got this industry that's grown around the drown sector for the last 16 years, we're ahead of the rest of the world, but let's keep that competitive advantage and let's take the initiative and lead the rest of the world in this. This is something that really, Australia can be the world leader in and really should be.

 

Phil Tarrant:

Who needs to do that? Where does that leadership need to come from? Who's going to fly the flag and corral the different related parties to put them together and start talking about this? Whose job is it?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Well, we have a Prime Minister that is very excited by innovation and technology. I share that dream, I really do. I think that what we could be doing and what we should be doing is pulling it together in the first place and get a national forum going so it brings together defence applications, military applications and also civilian application, that then be the leaders.

 

 

We, in fact, have one of our members of our Consortium, Jim Coyne, was in fact the chair of the international RPAS study group for five years. So that person, representing the Australian government and the civil aviation safety authority, was leading the way. So let's not lose that head start that we've got. The benefits really can only be truly achieved by full integration of drones into unsegregated airspace, and that to happen not only at the domestic level but at an international level.

 

Phil Tarrant:

To make this happen, is there a reluctance from the different constituents to make this happen, or there's just no framework or facility to make it happen? I.e., is the military, is the ADF open for engaging with a civilian body, civilian stakeholder, civilian influences to get together to start this process or maintain this process?

 

Ron Bartsch:

The main issue has been a lack of awareness and education just in terms of where Australia has been and how we are leaders in this world, in the world, in this regard. But also the fact that the capability and technology, people when I say, "Look, I can see a world not so far away where we can deliver human drones from Dallas to Sydney in three hours." People say, "Oh you're dreaming." I said, "Well, it's half a century ago that we were doing test flights in the Concord at twice the speed of sound, taking over 100 passengers. It was almost half a century ago that we put a man on the moon, 250,000 miles away. So what is so ridiculous between getting a human heart from Canberra Hospital to St Vincent Hospital in 30 minutes?"

 

Phil Tarrant:

It's not actually far, is it?

 

Ron Bartsch:

This is not unforeseeable. This is the future now. It's just a matter of getting the parties together and educating the rest of the people that need to be involved with this, just as to what the capability is and what the opportunity is.

 

Phil Tarrant:

To be fair, the reading I've done around drones, and I must admit it's only recently just to prepare myself just to have a chat with you. None of that really comes through in any of the readings I had about just how far advanced we are on a global stage in terms of I guess our forward thinking, civil aviation, to put in regulations around the use of drones and it being a world first. That doesn't really come through very often. The applications outside of just base military applications, the delivery of bombs or missiles or whatever, there's not really a lot out there to be fair.

 

Ron Bartsch:

Well, can I suggest you perhaps weren't reading the right literature. There's a small publication, just been released, called Drones in Society, and that I believe ... We put it out there with Jim Coyne and Katy Grey, were the co-authors of that. We put it out there because we realised there was an incredible lack of understanding and awareness of what drones were all about. People get scared of technology when they don't understand it.

 

Phil Tarrant:

They do.

 

Ron Bartsch:

But we have credit cards and we're not scared of using credit cards, we use mobile phones, we use computers. The drone is no different. It's jut an advancement in aviation, in a particular area, utilising the technology that's available. Australia is very, very well placed to realise that opportunity and lead the world in this regard.

 

Phil Tarrant:

How do you feel in terms of longevity with ... Obviously drones need to be piloted by someone, probably quite fortunate these days that kids love computer games and drone racing in a recreational sense is a very popular and growing sport. Do you think we've got young guys and girls coming up through school right now, going to be attracted to piloting drones into the future? Is that going to be an attractive place to be?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Well, it is. In fact, one of our Consortium members, UVA Air have already developed a curriculum for higher school certificate and they're trialling it in 12 high schools in the Hunter Valley and already one of the sons of one of the people in an airline I worked for, is also a year 11 and really sees that as the future. The prospects of people working within the aviation industry, there's still always going to be pilots, but there's going to be a lot of applications where drones will take the place of what has traditionally done by manned aircraft, and do it a lot more successfully.

 

 

So we've got to prepare ourselves for the fact that there's going to be a lot of people employed in this area. It's been valued, the drone industry sector as being over $145 billion by PWC. I really believe that the industry is probably going to be worth a lot more than that in the years to come, and as we transition, a lot of traditional aircraft such as coastal surveillance and search and rescue missions, but also as we find new areas where we can have applications such as medical applications.

 

 

In Australia, it's always suffered a bit from being a tyranny of distance and I guess that's the reason why Australia had the lead in aviators in the world, and leading manufacturers in aircraft at some stage there. So there's no reason why we can't turn the page and start that tradition again.

 

Phil Tarrant:

For those businesses who are currently involved in the development of drone technology or those who are eyeing it as a potential place to perhaps utilise their manufacturing skills in a different application, you've painted an industry which looks like it's going to be worth quite a lot and buoyant into the future. So what would your recommendations be to those companies?

 

Ron Bartsch:

You've just got to get onboard and embrace the technology. I think it's going to be those people that are slow on the uptake. It's just, I guess, a function of what a rapidly technological society is all about. If you're not agile enough, if you're not creative enough to identify the technology and the innovation that's going to benefit your organisation, you will be left behind. There's plenty of dinosaur airlines out there, Pan Am and these companies that didn't change, didn't change quick enough. Who would have thought that 10 years ago or even that 55% of the total airline market is low cost carriers? Low cost carriers virtually didn't exist before, and they've been started, like AirAsia, by some one who's had no involvement in aviation. So it's no impediment for people that have got no knowledge or background in aviation to get involved in what is the drone phenomena.

 

Phil Tarrant:

I think that's wise counsel. So your new book, Drones in Society, where can people pick that up?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Well hopefully just about anywhere at any bookstores and that, or we're online. The title Drones in Society: Explaining the Strange New World of Unmanned Aircraft says it all.

 

Phil Tarrant:

And that's a good starting point for people who are looking to perhaps associate their business or get involved in this growing sector, or just to shape the way they might view drone and drone use into the future.

 

Ron Bartsch:

Yeah, look, we've put a lot of information on the website as well, and that's the Asia-Pacific LPAS Consortium, we've got information on there. Also uasinternational.com. If you have a look at those websites you'll get a lot of information in terms of what the restrictions are on drones and that, but when you consider in September last year, there were 400 commercial operators of drones in Australia. Today, there are more than 4000. That's in the space of six months.

 

Phil Tarrant:

That's huge.

 

Ron Bartsch:

It is huge. Who's scarce? There could be 80-100,000 drones out there now, so how are we going to absorb and integrate these into society? Well, read the book. It's good.

 

Phil Tarrant:

Ron, I really appreciate the chat because you've shaped my knowledge even more around the development of drones, usage of drones, particular in military context and outside of the delivery of bombs or eye in the sky, but these other applications. Particularly the medical application of it. I think it's money well spent that the government gets behind, and I think your point around making sure that the relevant stakeholders get together to forge ahead as a collective body to keep our positioning, I guess, this advantage we've had for 16 years amongst our international peers in terms of usage of drones and applications of drones and legislation around drones. I think the opportunity is there and fortunately the government has outlined an investment into supporting that. Whether that's going to come through, I'm not too sure. Are you cynical about that or do you think it's going to happen?

 

Ron Bartsch:

Look, there's currently a review underway at the moment that's due to hand down government review on drones within a civilian context, to be handed down in December this year. What I call on the government minister, Pine, and also-

 

Phil Tarrant:

Who all listen to this, by the way.

 

Ron Bartsch:

Yeah, please. What we need to do is not separate or distinguish between military and civil applications. That happens down the line. We've got to get together first, and there's got to be privacy groups there as well, because there's a lot of applications and activities of drones that go outside. They may be operating legally, but they're not operating responsibly. So having a code of conduct that everybody will comply with is very important as well.

 

 

I would call on the government to actually have a summit and rather than ... I'm sure the review will come out in there for the civilian application, but let's get a summit together so we can have a look at this issue and how we're going to integrate drones, not only into society, but for benefits within the defence capacity as well. Then work out the regulations, a regulatory framework, and how we're going to encompass it. Just not from a safety and technical perspective, but also from a responsible perspective, that we haven't got privacy issues or we haven't got cyber security issues with companies where you've got nano drones spying on them. So it requires a whole of government approach, but all the stakeholders to be present.

 

Phil Tarrant:

That's good. Ron, appreciate it. Let's keep in touch, let's get you back on. If the usage of drones is increasing so quickly we probably need to have a chat again pretty soon in terms of just this evolution of drones in society. If you've got any questions for Ron or around this podcast or me in general, make sure you email the team editor at defenseconnect.com.au, we could put an introduction in to Ron for you or pass on any questions that you do have, so please do that.

 

 

Remember to check out the rest of the podcast on the website that you're probably looking at right now, or if you're listening to iTunes, just scroll down. You'll find all the other ones that we've done. They're quite broad and varied and we try to keep them that way. So if you're interested, actually, on coming on the podcast and having a chat with us, please do. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Remember to check out the website, defenceconnect.com.au, we're on all the social stuff, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. You can follow me if you like on Twitter @PhillipTarrant, and please keep those reviews coming as well on iTunes. We do appreciate them. Five star rankings are great, they help boost up our rankings and get more people listening to the Defence Connect podcast. So thanks for tuning in, we'll see you next time, bye bye.

 

 

 

 

Listen to previous episodes of the Defence Connect podcast:

Episode 34: PODCAST: Making a technical contribution to Australia’s defence force – Ian Irving, Northrop Grumman
Episode 33: PODCAST: Cracking the international supply chain – Andrew Sanderson, TAE Aerospace
Episode 32: PODCAST: Maximising Australia’s defence potential – Richard Marles, opposition defence spokesman
Episode 31: PODCAST: Championing local talent in defence – Peter Freed, Cirrus Real Time Processing Systems
Episode 30: PODCAST: Engaging primes as an SME – Stephen Renkert, Electrotech
Episode 29: PODCAST: Driving innovation in defence - Stephane Ibos, Maestrano
Episode 28: PODCAST: Manufacturing Australia's future – Jens Goennemann, AMGC
Episode 27: PODCAST: Brave new world – the ever-evolving defence technology sector
Episode 26: PODCAST: Going global with SMEs
Episode 25: PODCAST: Shaping Victoria’s defence industry

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