Drones for good
Dr. Catherine Ball is an author, founder, and ethics advocate working across global projects where robotics and new technology meet environmental protection.
A sought after voice in industry, Dr. Ball is now working with the application of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) aka drone technology across remote communities, schools, industry, and citizen scientists. Dr. Ball is leading the call for discussions around the ethics of spatial data, aka geo-ethics.
Dr. Ball’s biggest passion is found working on projects that have a humanitarian aspect, ranging from the use of RPAS for emergency response, to recording cultural heritage, and agricultural assessments. Dr. Ball has travelled and worked globally on cutting edge projects that combine science, entrepreneurship, empowerment, education, and training.
Dr. Ball’s latest passion project is #SheFlies whereby women and girls get a chance to fly and try drone technology. She Flies aims to reach 100,000 women and girls in 2017.
Dr. Ball continues to support Australia as being the world leader in the non-military application of drone technology, also known as “drones for good”. As such, Catherine has co-created a new, global congress to be held annually in Brisbane starting in August 2017. The World of Drones Congress will run annually and will be the first significant global drone conference to focus on all parts of the drone economy, and the future of the industry.
"If you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best" Marilyn Monroe
"It's never too late to be what you might have been" George Elliot
"There's nothing you can do that can't be done" John Lennon
I was born the 14th of August 1979, at the time the biggest hit was ‘Tell me why I don’t like Mondays’ which is kind of ironic now being someone who has no concept of what a weekend is. When you are running your own businesses, the idea of a defined work weeks disappears quickly as you simply become too busy to follow such a construct.
When asked the question, who are you? The definition that comes to mind above all others is the one of someone who is still trying to discover the legacy they wish to leave, to live a life lived with values. I come from humble beginnings, growing up in a single parent home in the midlands in England. Through determination I managed to drag myself through university and a PhD, accruing a great debt along the way.
I first began working in the field of environmental consultancy before the GFC hit in 2010, triggering my leap into the unknown in the form of moving to Perth, Western Australia where I knew no-one. Prior to deciding to move to Perth, I had never even heard of the place. I took the same approach to moving as I had in choosing the location for my gap year where I flipped through a travel book before landing on Zambia, which I hadn’t heard of but decided that based on the unfamiliarity alone it was the right place to go. I like the idea of travelling to the unknown and at the time Australia was well renowned for never having gone into recession, the potential stability in the greater global context at the time was highly appealing to a single 30-year-old woman. Whilst part of me is sad thinking back about the choice to move away from home, part of me is also very glad as I would never have moved to Perth otherwise, it certainly wasn’t on my bucket list. I have now been living in Australia for the last 7 years, having had five corporate jobs during this time.
Upon arriving in Australia, I was working as a data manager on a large marine monitoring program before becoming involved in the project management and contract management of large projects. In 2000 in Perth there was an influx of 457 skilled visa migrants, those who were highly skilled but were running away from the financial crisis that were occurring in other countries. At the time, I remember being told that these visa holders were literally flying into Perth Airport, being met by staff members of their new employers who were then presenting them with their redundancy packages and sending them back home on the next available flight. I was lucky to get in just before the employment ‘gates’ closed.
They say now that the average length of time spent in a role is 2 years, we accept that there is no longer the concept of a job for life. However, for me given the types of jobs that I am after there never has been. I am someone who gets bored quickly, I enjoy complex and stimulating projects. So, I have followed the projects around, I have been headhunted by a couple of different consultancies following the same kind of data, contract and project management work on cutting edge and difficult projects.
Looking back, I often wonder how I got where I am today. Steve Jobs famously said, ‘you can only join the dots looking back’, however given I come from an educational background in predictive statistics I must slightly disagree, I think you can extrapolate your own future based on the direction you want to head and the decisions that you in turn make.
I find that I cannot be easily defined, that my role is not one clearly termed such as an accountant or a lawyer. I would say that I am a scientist, a speaker, a manager, someone with interests in increasing female exposure to technology, in maintaining Australia’s reputation as one of the top-users of drone technology in a non-military context and as someone who wants to empower communities to protect mother nature and to appreciate the fragility of where we live. To put it simply I would describe myself as a social architect. Someone who brings people together, the latest project being the Drone Congress which is bringing together 2,500 schools across Queensland in the context of students entering a competition to design a drone.
Everyone always asks me how I got into drones. My answer is that I am not actually that big of a fan of the platform technology myself. I love it when it can do fun things, but for me you may as well unleash the flying monkeys as far as I am concerned, what I really care about is the data and what it can do in order to keep people safe. The fact that you can operate low flying aircraft over shark or crocodile infested waters without having to put people at risk is a massive advancement. In my last consultancy role, we came up with the idea of testing and trying to utilise drone technology. When this was a success, my managing director at the time brought me over to Brisbane and started developing our module as an international business line, looking at what we could do and what we wanted to do. The thing about being first to or early to market is that it can be very lonely. Some of the work that we did was world leading, in that it still hasn’t been done again. I then went on to be independent.
I find it rather depressing that we made such inroads with the technology however so many people are not taking up the technology. The people who should be taking it up are not because of the myths, the expense and the old-fashioned attitude of this is the way we have always done things.
Anyone who is involved in thought innovation or a new concept will know that the first thing you come across is when you have a new idea, the brick wall known as the inertia of charge. As human beings, we do not like change, however this is in the context of the fourth revolution happening around us where we are forced to change. Last year it was announced at the World Economic Forum that we are now leaving the 3rd economic revolution and entering the 4th, meaning we are becoming a data driven and data hungry society at the same time moving into automation and machine learning. We all have our smart devices, being connected and sometimes disconnected in ways that we haven’t been before. We are moving towards technology doing traditional jobs and new jobs being created to enable this to happen.
The question then becomes do you want to be waiting in line to ride the wave or do you want to be the first one on that wave? Australia is in a tipping point in that it’s about a whole social, economic and cultural shift in which we are slowing down. We have dropped down in the global innovation index, we need to reflect on what stops us and our companies from innovating, how do we as a culture move on from the attitude of this is how things have always been done? We need to not focus on the risk of change, instead focusing on the risk of failing to change.
We are in a situation if you take the metaphor of the carrot and the stick, where drone technology has been the carrots for some time and regulation is about to become the very big stick. Every time a human dies doing a task that could have been done using drone technology, for example a grade one bridge inspection, that person has taken the risk and died where there has been no need to do so. We need to ensure that our processes and our legislation promotes and utilises innovation, that it does not stifle it. There have been a number of projects I have been involved in where people have said to me ‘’Catherine this is great, but it is too early’, I respond to them how about you start a spin-off company and re-write the rule book. If your old long-chain project methodology is not flexible or adaptable to cope with change, then you are going to have to change the rules in which you operate within which if you are a large company could be risky. So, start off a smaller spin off where you can incubate the risk where you can do it a little bit at a time. We have to appreciate that people are averse to change, particularly where they view it as something which disempowers them. New technology, drones, data management and anything containing an acronym disenfranchises those who do not understand them. As a scientist, you quickly learn the need to be able to speak business, just as I think those in business are starting to realise that they need to be able to speak science.
Much of the aversity to drone technology comes from a lack of understanding, from the portrayed uses we see in movies or in the media. The word drone is very divisive, with half the people I speak to supporting it and the other half not. The reality is that we do not really have an alternative for the word, we do not have a word which distinctively defines drone technology which is used for good. Instead when people talk of drones we often think of war and violence.
Across the industry, which overlaps with the work that I am currently consulting on, I am seeing new uses of drone technology. Recently here in Australia we were hit with Cyclone Debbie, the first footage of the storm that we saw came from a drone, I do not believe that we have an integrated drone application emergency first response across Australia. I think this is a massive gaping hole given how perfect the technology is for emergency response, you can put these winged unmanned aircrafts into the middle of a storm and real-time measurements, determining whether it is a category 1 or a category 5 cyclone.
We should be using this technology for what is termed as dull, dirty or dangerous work. Here in Queensland there are farmers who are looking at how to utilise the technology for agricultural purposes. I was recently speaking to a farmer who was flying around a chickpea field looking for disease in difficult land to access, he is now able to use drone technology to muster cattle to him away from the diseased areas. What would normally take between a day or two, is now only taking him a couple of hours. Westpac have utilised drone technology in their Little Ripper program which is able to drop lifesaving equipment to people who lifesavers cannot get to quickly.
We now have school girls getting involved in coding, programming and drone technology through the She Flies program in classrooms. There is so much more going on than snags being delivered from Bunnings or Pizzas being delivered from Dominoes.
The biggest difficulty that I have had in my life has been accepting what my strengths are and accepting that I cannot be everything. My biggest habit is to check in with myself and be true to my gut as to what I want to achieve. Every time I have had a regret or made a mistake in my life, it has come from not listening to my gut or ignoring what I actually know.
This year I have also given up drinking alcohol as I know I do not have the time to lose to even being the slightest bit hungover. I have had a lot of people say to me ‘oh poor you’ or ask whether I am pregnant, this makes me question the health of our society’s relationship with alcohol when it becomes such a stigma for me to say that I am not drinking. I need to be keeping clarity of mind.
Advice to self
One of my great friends and mentors Cathie Reid, who wrote the introduction to the book that I curated last year, once said to me ‘’to be successful you have to be braver for a little bit longer’. When you have an idea or you are doing something and you think that it is all going to go to hell, you need to hold on for that little bit longer. Cathie has met some of the most successful and interesting business people who are still alive today so for her idea comes from solid foundations. I remind myself of this on quite a regular basis.
I love quotes, one of my favourites is that of Marilyn Munroe who was a drone engineer during World War II, who famously said ‘íf you can’t handle me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best’. Another quote which sticks with me is that of George Elliot, who was actually Mary Anne Evans but had to write under a man’s name because a woman could not be published, who beautifully wrote ‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been’. If there is something in your heart that you have always wanted to do, it’s never too late to get started and once you get started you will wonder why you did not start earlier. I also strongly connect to the song lyric of John Lennon ‘there is nothing you can do, which can’t be done’. This grounds me by reminding me that whilst you might think you have a unique idea or perspective, there is very little which is unique in human nature.
Back at the end of last year, around the Telstra Awards, I had to work out what to do in order to leave a legacy. I decided to commission a book that would exist beyond me, I did not want the book to be about me but instead about the questions that people always ask me. It came to be that 14 highly successful Australian business women came together to produce the book called Gumption Trigger, being the idea of channelling your inner leading man or woman. You can purchase a copy of the book from www.gumptiontrigger.com. The aim of the book was to help people through their difficult periods, we thought if we could just help one person. The book has already paid for itself in terms of the feedback we have had, women who have contacted me to tell me the difference that it has made in their lives, it’s become a passion project.
I would suggest that anyone who has an interest in learning more about drone technology has to come to the World of Drones Congress in August here in Brisbane, something we aim to hold for at least the next 5 years. We are already attracting a lot of global attention, you can have a go at a racing drone, try a drone simulator and talk to those who are already utilising drone technology for different and inventive purposes. We also have workshops around topics such as privacy and security questions that the use of drones gives rise to.
In terms of getting in contact with me, the best place is through www.drcatherineball.com on which you can find my social media handles.