Tell us about yourself.
I am a Principal Research Scientist with the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy. I am based in Darwin, Northern Territory with the Supervising Scientist Branch. Our core function is to protect the Alligator Rivers Region (which includes the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park) from the impacts of uranium mining.
I lead a program focused on Revegetation and Landform monitoring and assessment in the context of the rehabilitation and closure of Ranger uranium mine. My background is in landscape ecology and remote sensing, and I have been working in this field in northern Australia for 18 years. I have a PhD in radar remote sensing and have worked in academia, the private sector, and for the past 11 years in government.
How and why did you start using drones to monitor the environment in northern Australia?
The use of satellite data and traditional airborne remote sensing for environmental monitoring is limited in northern Australia by environmental conditions such as cloud cover during the wet season and bush fires during the dry season. Obtaining a clear data capture that can be used for quantitative applications and repeat monitoring is very difficult. In addition, the scale at which we need to monitor mine site rehabilitation is at the plant level. Repeat high-resolution traditional airborne data captures are cost prohibitive.
We have been watching the progression of drones with interest and in 2013 we felt that the technology was at a stage where we could commence a Research and Development program in using the technology for environmental monitoring and assessment. It provides us with a cost effective means to obtain ultra high-resolution data in a flexible way that overcomes the environmental challenges we experience with traditional remote sensing technology.
My favourite type of project involving drones is when we undertake remote location jobs. One job involved us using a helicopter in the coastal mangroves to get around the sites we were surveying. The logistics of moving our equipment in the field and then undertaking missions are quite a challenge. With remote jobs we generally push the technology to the limit and always learn new things because, if you travel a day to get to site, you need to trouble shoot the issues that invariably arise on the spot to ensure the job gets done.
Do you have a success story you would like to share?
Every mission we fly that we get good data from safely is a success, however I think our drone program as a whole is a success story. We have multiple platforms and sensors (including hyperspectral and LiDAR sensors) that are collecting data in an operational way that is fit for purpose for our business. We have achieved this within a two-year time frame.
What excites you most about the potential for women in the industry?
It really is an equal opportunity industry, and the women involved in the industry support other women, especially at the entry level. There are no barriers to entry for women entering the drone industry. Your work will speak for itself. I have not seen such an uptake of technology by women in a STEM field as I have seen with drones. So many possibilities!
What You’ve Learned:
What has been your most significant “lightbulb” moment since you started using drones in your work?
I have had two ‘lightbulb’ moments. The first one happened very early on in my drone journey and that was if you want to have an operational drone program for environmental monitoring, you need redundancy. In the least, you should have two of everything that is business critical. If others become reliant on your data and subsequent information, you can’t afford to have ‘down-time’.
The second ‘lightbulb’ moment I had was more recently. I have always been open and transparent about the challenges of running an operational drone program, warts and all. At a recent event people commented that I need to make this information publically available because the commercial sector could benefit from our learnings as the commercial operators don’t openly share their challenges because it could affect business.
What have you learned you wish you had known when you got started?
You will have ‘perfect’ missions and other days the drone gods are not smiling down on you. You will crash and you will have technology failures, but that is OK. The bad days provide you with really valuable learnings that you can add to your operational procedures and pass onto others. So as frustrating as the ‘failures’ may seem, appreciate them for how they will improve your operations.
Is there a tip you learned you would like to share with other women in the industry?
Don’t be shy. Put yourself forward. I have found the industry to be welcoming of women and genuinely encourages our participation in a meaningful way, which sets it apart from other STEM fields. Also, if you can, check out your local aero modeler’s club as these sites can be useful places to test your drones and train. You may also meet other drone enthusiasts.
What’s the best way for W&D readers to contact you to learn more about your work using drones as a research scientist?
Dr Renee Bartolo
Principal Research Scientist
Supervising Scientist Branch, Department of the Environment and Energy