NSW father and son shoot for the stars, turning farms-and-mines town into drones and aerospace hardware hub

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a regional town known for its gold mining and agriculture to be the next “centre of drone excellence”, but this father and son did. 

Key points:

  • A drone testing range is being established at West Wyalong in the NSW Riverina
  • New drone, balloon, and space technology are being developed
  • It is hoped the technology could be used by emergency services to help save lives

Flight Design research and development manager Robert Brand and his son, Jason, are setting up a facility at West Wyalong in the New South Wales Riverina to study, develop, and analyse aerospace and space hardware.

The 70-year-old has high hopes for some of the potentially “lifesaving” hardware.

He said it could have been valuable during the Black Summer bushfires and recent flood emergency in the east of the country.

“My house was one of the first almost to be burnt down in the 2019 fires in Hazelbrook [in the Blue Mountains],” he said.

“The people would’ve been able to get a very clear view of what the fire was doing 24 hours a day, not just during the daylight hours when it’s safe to fly helicopters.

“This changes the whole game, totally.”

An older man stands next to his younger son with clouds behind them. Father and son Robert and Jason Brand are aerospace innovators.(ABC Riverina: Shannon Corvo)

Testing technology

The facility will also host workshops for people wanting to learn how to fly drones, get their licences, and provide a space for organisations to test their own technology.

The Brands started working on a project to send balloons into the sky that will stabilise at an altitude of about 16 kilometres, something Robert Brand said had never been achieved.

“They’ll have solar power, they’ll have batteries, they’ll be able to just motor gently against the wind up there, which is pretty light,” he said.

“We can fly a system to a disaster zone and provide visuals of what’s going on, and provide radio communications to people on the ground.

“We need to be able to get this technology bedded down really well and into the hands of our defence forces, firefighters, and the SES.

“If we can do that, it will change this country.”

The most recent balloon launch, which contained a prototype sensor for a future mission to Mars, testing flight systems, cameras, controllers, and stabilisers, was a success.

A younger man kneeling on the ground holding onto a huge balloon filling with helium with his father holding on as well. Preparing the balloon for launch to test sensors, cameras, and flight systems.(ABC Riverina: Shannon Corvo)

Mr Brand said the technology could also be used by farmers, universities, space enterprises and environmental workers.

“We’ll see drone activity multiply by, I don’t know, I’m forecasting about 20-fold in the next five years,” he said.

Built first drone as 11yo

At 20, Jason Brand is the CEO of Flight Design.

He is also the youngest person to win the Australian Industry and Defence Network Young Achiever New South Wales award.

A young man with wavy short hair sits at a foldout table with his computer and a contraption next to him. Jason Brand has been tinkering with technology from an early age.(ABC Riverina: Shannon Corvo)

“I was nine years old the first time we went on a balloon launch,” he said. 

“Long story short: the amateur radio club we knew were going to do one.

“They said, ‘It’s too difficult, we’re not going to do it’, so sad and I decided that we wanted to and it all started from there.”

Growing up, school never agreed with Jason. He barely got his Higher School Certificate.

So, he took matters into his own hands, literally.

“I learn in my own way and that’s through doing, researching on the internet, actually having the objects in my hand and programming them,” he said.

Jason built his first drone at the age of 11, and put together computers shortly after.

An older man bends down to look at a wooden and aluminium contraption with metal legs being built by his son. Robert and Jason prepare to launch a weather balloon attached to flight-system sensors.(ABC Riverina: Shannon Corvo)

Tough, but rewarding

Robert works closely with his son to create never-before-used technology.

They both have a shared vision to innovate and improve systems.

Originally, Robert, with his lifetime of experience working for telecommunications companies and even the Apollo 11 mission, was leading the charge.

But that has recently changed, with Jason taking control.

“He’s coordinating all this stuff. I create the weird stuff that Jason has to sort out and put together,” Robert said.

An almost full balloon floats in the air above five people keeping it steady. It was a team effort to fill the balloon with helium without it floating away.(ABC Riverina: Shannon Corvo)

It has been quite the journey.

“It can be tough. It can be very tough,” Jason laughed.

“It can, but it can be really rewarding too,” Robert chimed in. 

“The most important thing is setting those boundaries and knowing the difference between work and actually being dad and son,” Jason said.

Unique opportunity

Bland Shire Council executive assistant Julie Sharpe said it was an “exciting opportunity” for West Wyalong.

A woman with short blonde hair wearing a Bland Shire Council polo shirt looks into the distance with clouds behind her. Bland Shire Council’s Julie Sharpe never expected the agricultural town to become so focused on technology.(ABC Riverina: Shannon Corvo)

The council hired local and regional contractors to build the hangar at the airport.

“We can be at the forefront through our partnership in the development and testing of this new and modern technology, which is only going to expand in years to come,” Ms Sharpe said.

“West Wyalong is known for gold production and agriculture, so this is very unique for us.”

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Posted 19 Apr 202219 Apr 2022Tue 19 Apr 2022 at 2:09am, updated 19 Apr 202219 Apr 2022Tue 19 Apr 2022 at 4:18am

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