Drone futures – thousands of exciting possibilities take to the air, but demand common sense

(Pixabay)

The general public is most familiar with drones in two context –  hobbyists, photographers, and filmmakers using them to put cameras in the sky, and military forces embarking on missions where humans fear to tread. Some may be familiar with other exciting concepts, such as: 

  • Amazon et al planning to automate package deliveries by air – more on that in a separate report.
  • Pilotless electric air taxis from the likes of Uber, who want to redevelop brownfield sites as passenger interchanges, and create an integrated, on-demand transport system.
  • NASA exploring the surface of Mars via autonomous rotorcraft (some are en route to the red planet now).
  • Fixed-wing robots delivering medical supplies to remote areas.
  • Competitive racing drones swooping around 3D, neon-lit courses.
  • Swarms of illuminated craft presenting a 21st Century version of firework displays, with programmed animations at huge public events.

All of these applications and more are either here or on the horizon.

Throw in policing, search, rescue, and blue-light services, and this is the world of drones as most people see it: a technology that is fun, impressive, and could help to minimise the need for road traffic. Yet it can also be intrusive, even threatening in the wrong hands. That’s why police forces don’t just put drones in the air themselves, but also run counter-drone teams.

As Chief Inspector Simon Bachelor, Legislation and Policy Lead for Counter Drones at the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council, puts it: 

All the indicators are that this is a growth industry. What we are about, though, is the promotion of safe and responsible use of the airspace, along with supporting innovation and growth in the UK. We are really mindful of not criminalising a lawful activity […] and also point out that the legal powers are really quite complex. Like many aspects of policing, we utilise legislation that wasn’t necessarily drafted with the intention of it applying to drones, or to counter drones.

Indeed, the landscape that surrounds unmanned aerial systems is changing all the time. This week saw the latest Westminster eForum conference in London on drone technologies, bringing delegates up to speed on some of the challenges, alongside the huge potential for commercial exploitation.

Agriculture is one promising area. Jack Wrangham, founder and director of start-up Drone AG, explained how his family background in farming persuaded him of the benefits of surveying land, crops, livestock, and irrigation from the air, using sensors and data analysis tools. This brackets drones with other IoT-centric innovations, such as vertical farming.

However, while agriculture is an obvious candidate for innovation that could aid sustainability and boost profits, Wrangham explained that farmers are reluctant to spend big money on unproven technologies. They also lack the time to carry out new tasks and learn new skills. As a result, innovations will need to be both inexpensive and highly automated: low-cost drones that can carry out inspections autonomously and gather data throughout the year.

The ability to use aerial systems economically in farming is also hampered by current regulations, which prevent most drones from flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). As a result, they can only survey relatively small areas at present.

On track?

Other zones of drone innovation include offshore wind farm and oil platform repairs, urban engineering projects (why put up scaffolding to inspect a building when you can send up a drone?) and transport network maintenance. For example, who knew that the UK’s railway infrastructure operator, Network Rail, now employs a Head of Air Operations? 

Her name is Rikke Carmichael. She explained that the organisation has become a leader in this space because it has recognised the potential of drones to help maintain critical infrastructure. By definition, any rail network is linear and, with the exception of stations and passenger trains, largely devoid of people. This makes it an ideal testbed on which to explore the technology safely. She said:

During the first eight months of this year, we noticed an increase of 45% in drone operations. That is both our internal drone operators, drone flights that are operated by Network Rail-trained staff, plus companies that we work with and third parties. We manage all the flights that happen over our network. A 45% increase is significant – not unexpected, given the way this year has gone, but very positive. We continue to develop the ways that we use drones and technology that keeps being developed and offered to us. We are always learning and adopting new ways of using our drones.

Drone insurance is another fast-emerging sector. The likes of specialist start-up Flock are aware that all commercial flights will need to be insured against losses, injuries, accidents, theft, and damage. As an app-based, real-time system, Flock is also a data goldmine.

Risky business 

In each of these areas there are big opportunities, but also barriers that need to be scaled. The technology’s affordability – not to mention its potential to cross social and personal boundaries at speed – puts it within reach of many people. That’s a good thing, but it’s also one of many reasons why drones are tightly regulated by civil and federal aviation authorities. Air traffic control systems risk being overwhelmed, and that puts all of us at risk.

The task of managing our airspace may soon be colossal, given that there may be more commercial drone flights in a single city on one day than a country’s airports see piloted aircraft – more on this in a separate report. Automation, assurance, and robust safety measures will be critical if and when the rise in drone numbers becomes exponential.

Until December 31 2020, there are clear legal distinctions between commercial and hobbyist drone operations in Europe. But from next year, the regulatory burden will shift under the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to focus on the nature of the flight itself, rather than the operator. 

The UK has signalled it will adopt the new EASA rules, according to Andrew McQuillan, Managing Director of start-up Crowded Space Drones – a man whose career in the industry began in earnest wrangling drones for TV series Game of Thrones. 

Regulators will also begin to focus more on the size, weight, and speed of aerial platforms (with operational categories that are Open, Specific, or Certified), and on whether the drone is flying near people, over them, or far from them. In this way, swarms of small, lightweight drones entertaining crowds will be deemed less dangerous than, say, a heavy, multi-rotor platform that might be carrying dangerous goods.

The latter is itself an evolving area for regulators, said McQuillan. ‘Dangerous goods’ might include life-saving blood supplies and medicines, but also virus samples or hazardous chemicals.

Autonomy is a concern for some people too. While a degree of autonomy is essential for some drone applications (where real-time human control is difficult or impossible), the idea of our skies being full of thousands of noisy, autonomous aircraft – day and night, with many held aloft by rotating blades – will be a tough sell to the public. Blades and people are rarely a good mix.

But it’s important to recognise that drones can be a force for good. Kumardev Chatterjee is founder and CEO of start-up Unmanned Life, which focuses on drone swarms collaborating with land-based robots to carry out tasks autonomously:

We are in the city of Vienna, where our drones will be doing emergency response for fire, search, and rescue. If there’s an alert from somebody who is in trouble or distress, the drones will fly out and locate that person, while another would probably drop something like first aid or PPE until first responders get there. That’s an example of what our software can do with a range of different drones, no matter what the hardware is. Then you’ve got other things like drones working together in industry to deliver automated parcel sorting.”

For such a future to come about, drones will need to be integrated safely and en masse with the complex, messy, unpredictable human world, not to mention the crowded airspace above cities. 

That’s a huge undertaking when the risks might include your autonomous PPE delivery or weekly drone order of cornflakes colliding with an air ambulance over an inner city hospital, maiming a child, hitting a power line, or damaging a listed building. A sky full of thousands of drones demands that those drones can all fly safely, consistently, and predictably – and avoid each other – in all weather conditions. 

That means standardised avoidance systems as well as an overarching system of air traffic management. The sheer numbers involved suggest that much of this infrastructure will need to be automated, which itself may be a risk as it introduces a central point of failure.

So what prevents more widespread, commercial adoption of unmanned aerial vehicles is partly technological, partly to do with the regulatory landscape, and partly to do with common sense. The latter is something some drone innovators would be well advised to develop.

As previously explained, unmanned commercial drones are largely forbidden from operating BVLOS, but there are also limitations on how close drones can come to people, infrastructure, and facilities such as airports. McQuillan explained: 

At the moment, the only BVLOS applications are in segregated airspace danger areas. The reason they’re segregated is because there is no current system for unified traffic management [UTM]. There are lots of different identification systems out there. […][The problem is] there are a lot of technology solutions being provided in the drone world for UTM. However, there is no standardisation.

My take

Whichever systems are eventually adopted for identification, security, and UTM, they will need to be universal, including in their data formats. Until that happens, our airspace will have to remain largely segregated. 

Bear in mind traditional, piloted aircraft that fly worldwide need to share the skies with drones when they arrive in each country. There can’t be dozens of different national or regional systems.

Another big challenge, therefore, is where and how drone technologies can be safely trialled so that commercial applications can be developed to work in the messy human world. For that we need zones that can be freed up as testbeds for large-scale drone traffic. And we need to know these aircraft can’t be hacked.

Common sense, drone industry, please.

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