Associate Professor Catherine Ball. Photo: Jeremy Fay 

One engineer’s hope for the future takes flight

Associate Professor Catherine Ball has always been a rebel with a cause. She’s an engineer not afraid to think differently about the future of drones, Amy Smith writes.  

Think about drones and chances are you’re imagining military operations, stunning footage in your social media feed, or a cup of coffee flying straight to your door. But could the technology play a bigger role in our society? Associate Professor Catherine Ball thinks so.  

“From a drone’s eye view, I can see endless possibilities. I believe the future flies,” she says.  

The aviation, robotics, and drone expert at ANU envisages a promising future for uncrewed aerial vehicles. “It’s not just about having drones that deliver burritos; instead think of drones that could fly around the cities of Australia with defibrillators on them,” she says.  

I look at the future and roll up my sleeves.

“We can use drones to monitor endangered species and remote places. We’d have them transporting lab or blood samples and sick people. We’ll have them fighting bushfires, operating in floods and extreme environments where it’s too dangerous for humans.”   

Ball is a self-described futurist, working to realise her vision of using ethically driven technology for good.  

“I look at the future and roll up my sleeves,” she says. “I don’t want to be a snake oil salesperson. I’d like to help bridge the gap between technical capability and tangible action. I’ve been on boards, run my own businesses, worked in the corporate world, and now sit in an academic position. I’ve seen these issues from many different angles.”  

To drive progress and collaboration in the field, Ball established the World of Drones and Robotics Congress, an award-winning international conference for aviation and technology experts and enthusiasts across industry and academia.  

“I wanted to build something where we could all come together and talk about how drones can help optimise health and safety, monitor the environment, and improve how we deliver first aid to people in disasters,” she says.     

Ball has a long history of championing change. Growing up in the UK, she describes herself as a “rebel with a cause”, who organised school fundraisers and campaigned for the girls’ uniform to include trousers.  

“I’ve had an interesting journey to get to where I am today as a woman in STEM.” 

She initially imagined pursuing law or medicine after school, but a thirst for adventure took her to Africa. There she discovered a love of the natural world, which she followed by studying STEM subjects.  

Ball completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in environmental protection, then a PhD in spatial ecology, descriptive and predictive statistics. After a stint in consulting, she relocated to Australia to work on a large environmental monitoring project, organising data and handling information.   

Five years ago, she took another leap of faith and ventured out on her own. She’s never looked back.  

“I thought, if I don’t go independent now I never will! I’ve opened and closed a number of businesses and tried different business models. Some of my start-ups have worked, and some have had to evolve and change,” she says.   

In 2020, Ball joined the School of Engineering at ANU, where she is an advocate of women in STEM and outspoken on representation, equity and diversity.   

“As the national university we have a leadership position to play, and the best way to get involved in leadership is to be at the table.  

“I’ve developed quite a thick skin in many ways. I’m now able to unashamedly call things out when I see it. If someone doesn’t like what I say, well I don’t mind. If I have the opportunity and I don’t say something, I’ll kick myself.”  

Ball continues to dream big. Her to-do list includes writing a bestseller, producing drone documentaries and science fiction films, as well as multiple industry and academic endeavours to demystify emerging technology that meets humanitarian, educational, and environmental needs.  

“I’d like to contribute to something and leave a legacy. All my work is a long love letter to my two sons. After all, the future is theirs. I just hope we leave them a good one.”