Delivery drones like these could soon be a common sight in our skies, but there is work to do by both companies and regulators to bring drones up to aviation standards.
Now much more than harmless toys, commercial drone usage is becoming an urgent issue for users and regulators alike. Delivery drones will very shortly take up a significant proportion of airspace in some places: both Google and Amazon were recently given approval by the FAA (The Federal Aviation Authority) to operate as an airline and deliver products by drone in the US. Aside from deliveries, many companies now use drones for their work—photography, infrastructure maintenance, agriculture—and there is no standard framework for insuring these entirely novel devices, which leads to quotes that are prohibitively expensive and drones flying without cover.
The increased usage of drones, and the limited amount of flight data available to build insurance policies and ensure safe operation, calls for far greater insight into how drones are flown. In turn, the use of reliable data and artificial intelligence can make drones safer and more accountable so that they can be trusted amongst other aircraft and no longer fly under the regulatory radar.
Drone companies and regulators seem to be filling in the gaps in each other’s knowledge and capabilities to reach a solution that suits everyone. DJI, the market leader in drones with around 75% of the market share, has chosen to put transponders in all its drones from 2020 to dramatically improve visibility and communication between drones and other aircraft in flight. Regulators have also met manufacturers and enterprise operators halfway by granting probationary licenses like those offered to Amazon and Google, allowing preliminary usage to ascertain exactly how safe drone fleets can be. Incidents like that in Mexico City last year, in which a passenger plane flying into Tijuana was struck by a drone in the final descent and had its nose cone obliterated, prove why proper regulations and responsible development can’t come quickly enough. Drones are comparable to aircraft and can be dangerous without proper oversight—“they’re basically flying chainsaws” says Jeff Thompson, the founder and CEO of Red Cat—so the onus is now on drone manufacturers and operators to prove that large scale drone usage will not pose a significant risk in the air and on the ground.
For drones to get significantly safer, however, we need to know how they fly, what the most common problems are, and that drone pilots are responsible and accountable for their aircraft. As is increasingly the case these days, data could solve the majority of these issues, but at the moment that information is not being generated. Red Cat is one of several companies trying to increase the digital visibility of drones, and has identified and labeled common features and problems that can make drones unsafe. “We identified events in the log files and then using AI we matched those events to flight features such as takeoff, landing, and yaw. From there, the AI used that information to identify real problems in the drone industry like oscillation,” says Thompson. Gathering this in-flight data on drones and linking that data to real-world problems will help to design drones that are reliable and safe enough for commercial flight, but gathering and analyzing this information at scale is hard.
This lack of visibility makes it difficult to insure drones, and insurers simply have no framework for how to provide cover for drones or enough reliable data to help them figure it out. “Everyone’s trying to figure out the best way to do it,” says Thompson, “the insurance companies are all ears and willing to work with companies but they’re going to wait for [companies] to supply that data.” Proof of responsible ownership and operating practices would be a boon to a huge number of companies currently operating drones without proper insurance. Whether using drones to survey civil infrastructure, to photograph weddings or even to investigate insurance claims, commercial users need proper insurance that will not put them out of business. “If all of a sudden [insurance companies] had all the data—you can prove you’ve completed a thousand flights, you haven’t hurt anybody, you’ve undertaken all the proper checks and precautions—they could quote $200 a month and $3000 in liability, compared to $3M liability now without that track record,” suggests Thompson.
Blockchain black box
In an effort to improve this situation for all involved, Red Cat is also utilizing blockchain technology to ensure that data is tamper-proof and that flight records can be reliable enough to meet existing aviation standards. Explaining their technology, Thompson says “it basically replicates a lot of the features of a black box on a commercial flight, which allows you to record all information of a flight”—something I was surprised to find is not already a standard feature of drones. This kind of record can avoid tampering by malicious pilots themselves—currently “drone flight replays are .txt files, literally just plain text, so a pilot could easily change that data” according to Thompson, “we want to be trusted by governments to secure their data, so that if a drone falls out of the sky no-one can access that information.” Having an inviolable record of a drone’s flight path, all its maneuvres and interactions with other aircraft would mean that drones could be trusted to fly by warrant of their transparency, and that other aircraft would not be interfered with as has been proven to be possible, if not plausible.
This is a key issue for regulators, who are taking the same approach as insurers regarding drone safety, effectively “telling the industry: ‘give us better technology and we’ll give you more regulations,’” according to Thompson. Regulators seem to be treating the issue maturely and with the gravity that drones deserve. The FAA has issued a set of guidelines for commercial drone operators to bring drones up to the same level of accountability and safety standards as other aircraft. Other companies are also joining the charge: Airbus has partnered with other international aviation authorities to try and define a set of regulations for commercial drone usage, as part of their own eventual foray into unmanned delivery drones. Regulators and enterprises working together to define safety standards is perhaps the best possible outcome for an emerging technology, and their efforts seem to be keeping pace with the growth of drone usage. Considering that huge multinationals have expressly stated their intention to start using drones at an unprecedented scale as soon as possible, defining really solid regulations now is completely appropriate.
Regulate and proliferate
The unstoppable march of progress spares no-one, and drones are no exception. Buzzing overhead with packages, filming urban movie scenes with minimal disruption, surveying property, bridges and utility systems, tending to urban allotments, fertilizing industrial agriculture plots, and verifying convoluted insurance claims: if drones are not already doing it they soon will be. It is refreshing then that regulators and companies are collaborating to ensure the smooth and safe integration of commercial drones within our existing legal and aviation systems.
Improving the safety of drones is a multi-faceted problem however, and it is not as simple as building better drones, creating anti-drone munitions or using eagles to pluck them from the sky. The safe development of drones needs to utilize the advanced technology available to us, and a sincere commitment to ensure that—as they will become ubiquitous whether we like it or not—drones will not pose any sort of risk to humans or aircraft. Steps by companies like DJI, Airbus, and Red Cat will go some way to solving a crisis before it happens, and the next move for regulators is to harness a steady stream of drone flight data to craft safe and fair regulations for all.
As August is a month of rest for so many of you, I will be back in September. Best wishes for the Summer break.
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