Four hurdles facing the future of Autonomous Drone Flight
It's All in the Timing
Two months ago, I was asked to write an article for the website Sifted about what regulators and industry need to do before our skies are opened to delivery drones from the likes of Amazon and DHL. Sifted published the piece this morning.
The timing of the request to write the article proved to be quite fortuitous, as on 5 June Amazon Prime announced it had been issued a Special Airworthiness Certificate by the FAA (the aviation body in the United Sates which manage the country’s airspace) allowing the company to operate its MK27 unmanned aircraft for research and development and crew training in authorised flight areas.
Whilst Amazon take another step towards making delivery drones a reality, the four hurdles I outlined for Sifted still need overcoming.
You can read my article below. I hope you enjoy it.
CEO and Founder
Drones haven’t yet transformed our skies. Here are four hurdles we need to overcome to make autonomous drone flight a reality.
In December 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos predicted drones would be distributing packages within five years. Now, in 2019, Alphabet’s Wing might have won initial approval from Australian and US regulators to make a limited number of deliveries, but we are still a long way from widespread realisation of Mr Bezos’ dream.
I’m often asked just how far off we are from seeing a sky full of drones delivering everything from new gadgets to weekly grocery shops. The reality is, we have the technology and the desire to make it happen within the industry, but before it becomes an everyday occurrence, there are some challenges we need to address which go beyond the not-so-simple logistics of dropping off parcels by air to your home.
Ensuring drones are safely integrated into everyday aerial traffic flow is key to unlocking this type routine commercial drone usage. A big part of this challenge is the ability for a drone to plan its path through the air, and to be able to react to hazards in the air or on the ground safely and in a predictable way.
In the UK, there’s a high chance at some point on a delivery drone’s journey, it will need to cross ‘controlled airspace’, which is managed by air traffic controllers. Together with the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority), air traffic controllers are charged with keeping our skies safe. However, both the advent of, and rise in the number of drones is creating friction and preventing the industry, quite literally, from taking off.
One reason for this is air traffic control is heavily reliant on manual operations by human air traffic controllers, who talk to aircraft pilots over radio and track aircraft on consoles in front of them. They cannot do the same with drones. Even if they could, the sheer volume of forecasted drone traffic would make it impractical and much less safe for them to continue without new solutions which can assist day-to-day traffic management through automation.
Industry alliances - such as Operation Zenith, led by Altitude Angel, which took place at Manchester Airport in November 2018 - have already proven how drones can be safely automated and fully integrated in an environment as busy and complex as an airport (Manchester is the UK’s third-busiest airport), and even in situations involving ‘rogue drones’ or unplanned movement by manned aircraft.
The bottom line is safety is paramount, and then it’s about communication and identification. And this is where today’s technologies are already making a huge leap forward.
As the skies get busier and busier, it becomes increasingly important to be able to ‘know’ where drones and traditional manned aircraft are. It may sound obvious, but even today, many piloted aircraft still can’t be seen or tracked by air traffic controllers or others in the sky. Many commercial drones, on the other hand, automatically share location information with a central service provided by the operator - so what’s needed is to connect the location of all airborne craft, from the largest commercial airliner to the smallest drone, up to the same systems used by air traffic controllers today.
With a nationally centralised service which is open to everyone in the drone industry to use, the UK could safely unlock its skies to millions of controlled drone operations while retaining control of safety rules and security.
In this way, technology can be used to blend drone positions with manned aircraft positions, ‘lighting up’ the sky so both types of air traffic can ‘see’ each other. But this only works for drones and aircraft which are complying with the rules.
So, what of ‘rogue drones’? Data from specialist sensors on the ground around airports will need to be integrated into airport systems and ‘fused’ with data from the drone tracking systems. This data can be connected with the new national system and will readily highlight drones which are legitimate and those which are in a place they are not supposed to be.
3. Better use and business cases
One of the most significant aspects hindering commercial drone use is the difficulty of building strong enough business cases for the use of drones for specific applications. For example, it has been shown using drones on airfields can deliver financial benefits. For example, a speedy inspection of a runway using a camera attached to a drone can keep an airport running smoothly and reduce airlines’ liabilities to passengers for delayed flights under the European compensation scheme.
Generally speaking, if there is one pilot operating just one drone there won’t be a strong enough business case, particularly because drones can only fly within the pilot’s line-of-sight.
However, when a pilot becomes able to operate multiple drones at once – for example; a delivery van driver parking up in a village and making multiple deliveries simultaneously using several drones, one can start to see how the business case could eventually stack up. Alternatively, imagine a drone ‘swarm’ fanning out to find a vulnerable missing person in hundreds of square kilometres of national park: one can quickly see how game-changing drones could be in helping to save lives.
The true potential of this sort of drone usage will be unlocked when multiple drones can be flown BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) by one pilot or as an automated, computer-piloted drone.
With a strong business case and lifesaving potential, we’ll be able to successfully tackle our fourth blocker…
4. Public Acceptance
At present, the use of drones in built-up urban areas is not widely embraced by the general public. Some people have the perception, justified or otherwise, drones are noisy and disruptive, while others worry every drone has a camera which is ‘spying’ on them in their own back garden.
Such concerns are appropriate for new technologies and it’s the job of regulators to help create new legislation and powers which enable towns and cities to choose where and how they embrace these technologies. Without a centralised system to manage these local rules, however, it becomes hard to imagine how this type of community-managed scenario could exist, though.
To overcome public concerns and win overall acceptance, we need to educate. This requires demonstrating the benefits of using drones, and not just as a way of delivering commercial goods faster. Securing widespread acceptance will depend on being able to demonstrate non-commercial use cases. Imagine the cost reduction for the NHS if it is able to save lives by delivering much-needed blood or life-saving medicines via drones, flying quickly above densely congested streets. We’re beginning to see the ‘good news stories’ come through, most recently in Baltimore where a kidney for transplant was flown between two hospital sites three miles apart before being successfully transplanted.
We’re also seeing airports take the threat of drone disruption far more seriously and they are deploying technology to combat ‘rogue’ drones in an attempt to prevent ‘another Gatwick’. Heathrow and five other airports operated by NATS are now using Altitude Angel’s GuardianUTM platform to give authorised users access to airspace in and around airports, which will aid the authorities in quickly identifying a drone on or near the airfield as friend or foe. It’s also the first step in helping to prove the use of automation to aid air traffic controllers in safely integrating drones into their workload, just as they already do with new aircraft.
As we hear more of these real-life examples of drones being used in a positive and practical day-to-day way and the instances of disruption are quickly resolved, then the public will understand and appreciate the positive impact drones will have on all our lives and then we will really be able to witness the power of drones to transform lives and revolutionise business.
Richard Parker is the Founder and CEO of Altitude Angel – the world’s foremost UTM (unmanned traffic management) provider. Altitude Angel work with drone manufacturers, air navigation service providers (ANSPs, the organisations and public bodies which manage controlled airspace) as well as businesses and organisations - which oversee large infrastructures across numerous industries - to provide solutions which will allow the safe integration of automated drones into airspace.